A Talk with Amy Brill

Amy Brill’s debut novel The Movement of Stars is a story of uncommon depth and precision. Inspired by the life of the mid-19th century scientist Maria Mitchell, Brill weaves an astral tale of a young astronomer’s diligent search for the next comet amidst the growing friction in Nantucket’s insular Quaker community, the slow crumbling of a dominant whale oil industry, and the complex hypocrisy of race relations thirty years before America celebrated its centennial.

In the same Brooklyn café where Amy Brill wrote and rewrote her drafts of this novel, we met for iced coffee to discuss the nuances of her literary, celestial, and maritime imagination.

—Amy Kandathil

   INTERVIEWER

Did you always take an interest in astronomy?

BRILL

Actually, I had no interest in it whatsoever, and I have no astronomy background. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was compelled by the idea of this girl astronomer, but had no concept of astronomy—which in some ways might have been easier. When I set out to do the research for the book, I was able to learn what I needed to construct the scenes using only mid-19th century sources.

INTERVIEWER

What struck me wasn’t only your knowledge of astronomy, but that you also familiarized yourself with the astronomy sensibilities of 1845.

BRILL

I stuck to what had been written and what was known at the time, and there was a wonderful book handed to me by a professor who was on a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society the same time I was there. He was looking at material relating to the “great moon hoax” of 1835, which involved a series of articles in the New York Sun reporting (falsely) that the astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered little men with wings on the moon. Anyway, the book was from 1850, titled The Recent Progress of Astronomy; Especially in the United States by the well-known astronomer Elias Loomis, from Case Western University in Ohio. He had compiled all the astronomy-related news and events, from new observatories opening up around the country, to the resolution of nebula, and even Miss Mitchell’s comet, into one volume. The book had a chapter on every innovation from the previous five years, and I was able to use it to construct the scenes where the characters are chatting about contemporary astronomy.

These developments in astronomy happened to be a great metaphor for the whole American notion of expansion, especially in the middle of the 19th century, and the concept of manifest destiny. We were literally expanding in every direction—westward, southward, and toward the stars. Concordantly, the idea “self-fashioning,” took root—the idea that one could make oneself better and more knowledgeable and more erudite through reading and study and joining groups and societies, and attending lectures and so on. We as a nation were debating our nature, our future: would there be slavery in these new territories? Who and how would governance operate? At the same time there was a race to resolve the nebula, to look farther and deeper, to understand what was in the heavens. It was the root of the American myth: that we can (and ought) to be bigger and better and stronger and faster.

 

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INTERVIEWER

The opening scene between Hannah, the Nantucket sky, and her telescope is one of my favorites in the book. Hannah doesn’t grant her affections easily, which makes her love for the stars all the more arresting. Can you talk about the importance and the challenges of writing a character who exhibits restraint?

BRILL

That’s a great question—this is something I haven’t gotten to talk about as much. The book took me over a decade to get out of my system. I think the majority of my difficulty was in figuring out how to tell the story of someone who doesn’t understand how she feels. There was a period of time when I was working in an epistolary format, because it was so germane to the period of time, and I was a big letter writer. I loved the idea of how time and distance might govern these characters. I wrote all these letters and journal entries for Hannah and Edward and everyone in her life, and I found it impossible to tell the story of someone who doesn’t express what she feels in the first person. She didn’t know how she was feeling, so how could she reveal it?

It was like a blockade, and I didn’t know how to get around it. So I scrapped that and went back to my third or fourth version of the story. When I started the book, I was so young—in my twenties, as Hannah was when she discovered the comet—and I thought it was clearly a book about an ambitious woman overcoming the restraints of her society in order to succeed. By the time I finished, I was 40, married with children and responsibilities, and I came to understand the book more as an examination of the whole spectrum of human desire. Not only physical desire, but intellectual desire, emotional desire, the desire to be understood, to make a contribution to society commensurate with one’s potential. As Hannah came slowly over time to understand herself (in draft after draft after draft), she not only had to act on feelings that she was not articulating, but then to articulate them. Which means of course that I had to force myself to articulate what she was feeling, and through that process I came to understand her.

And at the same time, I was growing up, myself. I was figuring out my own path and what I wanted out of life. So there was an interesting confluence of our trajectories: my character, myself. Her discipline came to influence my own approach to the work itself and having to push forward. As I came to understand her through that very long revision process where I would give drafts to my readers, and they would say, “What is she feeling? What is she thinking?” I had to drill my way into her mind and her heart, her emotional core. It took a lot of excavating to get to her, which is part of what took me so long.  I’ll try not to pick a character like this next time!

There’s been a lot of talk recently about women writers with likeable versus unlikeable characters. It’s an issue I discussed with my editor a lot—how to develop Hannah’s character so that readers would understand her, stick with her, whether they liked or disliked her.  Certain passages in the earlier part of the book, when Hannah is remembering things about her life before her brother left and her father sort of checked out, are there to add a glimpse of who she might be beneath the protective layers of discipline and work and restraint.

INTERVIEWER

The appearance of male mentors in Hannah’s life and work both propel her forward and hem her in. Any thoughts on the contemporary existence of this paradox?

BRILL

Well. I can cite numerous instances throughout my life—especially when I was younger—where a mentor or someone in a position of power was interested in more than guidance, or for reasons other than that my work merited attention. Those experiences were really disturbing, and I’m sure my strong reactions to them made their way into Hannah’s relationship with Dr. Hall. This is the history of gender relations. The vast majority of women in the mid-19th century couldn’t go to college, couldn’t own property, couldn’t hold a job outside of teaching or working in the domestic sphere. Women throughout history have been property, so it’s not surprising that the relationship between the sexes hasn’t evolved as quickly as we’d hope in every case. I’m not suggesting every man who offers guidance to a younger female is motivated by sexual desire or some sporting aspect of conquest, but the way that Hannah’s relationship with Dr. Hall plays out isn’t surprising.

Hannah has empathy for Dr. Hall, and I have empathy for him, too. I know men like him—smart, arrogant, a little embittered by the fact that the grand scale of their ambitions hasn’t been realized. Men who are not able to be vulnerable, and therefore have no outlet for emotional expression. Dr. Hall is a victim of all of that as well. Everyone is shaped by the culture and the time in which they live. I did have empathy for him, even in moments where he was sort of an ass.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find any parallels between Hannah’s nightly observations of the sky and the writing process?

BRILL

Her discipline had a definite influence on me. In the early stages of the process, I was awarded several amazing writing residencies, where I had thirty days to just work, without any responsibilities. If you gave me thirty days now, I could draft a whole new novel. What did I do with all that time? I mean, I read a lot, I did research, I took long walks, I figured things out. It was helpful to me, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child that I realized if I was ever going to finish this book, I had to go forward every day and not turn back. I set myself a goal to write four pages every single day, even if they were terrible and didn’t make it into the final draft. That’s how I finished the first draft of the book, five or ten days before I gave birth to my first child.

That draft was horrible. It was six hundred pages long, stuffed with characters that didn’t need to be there, multiple climaxes that took place over a long period of time. But therein were a beginning, middle, and end. Excavating the essential story took another three or four years. But finishing that first draft was the hardest part. It feels like something I should have known, but didn’t. People tried to tell me that I had to reach the end—or at least, an end—of the story. But I was afraid to go forward, not knowing what was going to happen. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t know at first—I had to write my way into it. It was challenging.

I finally figured out that I had to do something specific every day, the same thing over and over in order to get the pages written—work, not magic. It’s very similar to Hannah’s nightly regiment of observation to keep those clocks running for the whaling fleet.

INTERVIEWER

I am still struck by the idea of humans and comets as “wanderers” and how that metaphor took shape throughout the book. Does this notion in any way inform your own inspirations as a writer?

BRILL

I think the idea of what it means to be at home in a place is something that really interests me. Even my favorite children’s book writer, Margaret Wise Brown (author of dozens of stories for children, including The Color Kittens and Goodnight Moon) talked a lot about this “at-homeness” in the world that young children seek, or need. I think the idea of what roots us to a place, what makes us individuals as part of a larger community via a specific place in the world is hugely important, and it factors into something I’m interested in, in a literary sense—the public versus the private. How individuals function in a community, how we shape our identities based on or in opposition to the expectations in our community, and that also ties into the sense of being at home in a place.

When you look at yourself and realize that your personal desires and ambitions are out of sync with your public role in the community, what happens? How do you reconcile those competing interests? That’s a central question for me as a writer, and for the character of Hannah. What are my beliefs? Am I the person I’m perceived as? Who am I if I strip away the expectations of my culture, my community, my place? What’s left? That’s important, especially today.

INTERVIEWER

The plot in The Movement of Stars arises organically from opposing forces (often within a single person): uncertainty and faith, light and dark, passion and restraint, formal and informal. How conscious were you of these tensions as you wrote?

BRILL

It’s hard to say—it’s a “chicken or egg” question. The journey began with the idea of this teenage girl on her roof, night after night after night, searching for something new to appear in this familiar map of the night sky. When I think about what drew me, I think about who I was at the time when I was first engaged by this individual. I was the same age. I was solitary. I was a traveler. I was single. I was searching. I was a seeker. I was looking for something that would create a version of me that would then be somehow fully realized—the fulfilled adult version of me that I didn’t know how to get to. But I had no idea how to accomplish it. So the idea of the book began with the image of this girl looking for something.

That was just a door. I went through the door, and there was this isolated island in the middle of the 19th century with this restrictive religious community that seemed very nice on the surface, but that was conducting this very dangerous and exploitative whaling empire, slaughtering these huge beasts, paying petty wages to these sailors who were often conscripted. They were also staunchly against slavery, and yet they’d segregated their schools intentionally, and the editorials in Nantucket at the time expressed strong anti-miscegenation sentiments. Even though they were mixing commercially, they were discomforted by the idea of different races mixing socially. And this girl on the roof, she has a powerful mind and a keen eye, and she is searching for something no one expects her to find. But she persists, and what is the cost? What does she sacrifice in order to pursue this elusive goal?

So now the girl on the roof is pulled by all these seemingly disparate forces that are under the surface of this isolated community. It’s a petri dish for all these interesting questions about community and society and women against the backdrop of the decline of the whaling empire and this community that wants to shut itself off, but is about to become a tourist mecca. They’re about to discover how to extract kerosene from petroleum, which will be the end of whale oil, and that whole industry is going to die. Gold is about to be discovered in California, mills and factories are appearing all up and down the east coast, and that’s where men are going to work. No one wants to go to sea for four years anymore. Their isolated, insular community on Nantucket is about to be overrun by sun-seekers, strangers.

So now, all the questions become so interesting. Who is this girl on the roof now? What does she feel about all these things? What’s holding her back? What’s propelling her forward? What will happen? What does she want?

As all these questions circled, I went back to Nantucket for a week. I read all of Maria Mitchell’s journals, from her twenties through her fifties. But I wondered what she wrote when she was younger, in her teens and early twenties. The curator told me that Maria Mitchell burned all of her early letters in the great fire of 1846.

That was kind of a double-jackpot moment. Firstly, great fire! Who doesn’t want to write about a fire that burns down almost a whole town. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. But secondly, what would make such a young woman burn all her papers and letters? What didn’t she want her neighbors to find out? Maybe this is shallow, but you know, I was twenty-five. The first thing that came to mind seemed obvious to me: she had feelings for someone she wasn’t supposed to have feelings for. In that moment, Isaac Martin was born. I didn’t know everything about him—where he was from, what his interior life was like—but I knew he wasn’t white and he wasn’t a Quaker and he wasn’t from Nantucket. I knew he was going to drop in and become a foil for Hannah in her struggle to address all of these questions about who she really is and what she really wants. So the character came first, but as the questions started to circle, the questions and the characters became totally intertwined.

INTERVIEWER

The novel is a refreshing blend of historical and literary fiction. What do you think these two genres have to offer each other?

BRILL

I think it boils down to how well-told the story is. I don’t think genre really matters. You have mysteries, thrillers, and histories that are all beautifully written, or they can be written like crap. What is the book trying to address? What questions does the book engender in the reader? That’s the difference for me. It’s not what the book is trying to do; it’s what it accomplishes for the reader.

I personally love language and a beautifully crafted sentence, but it doesn’t have to matter to everyone, or to every reader. Everyone’s preferences are valid. No one wants to eat kale for every meal, and no one wants to eat McDonald’s for every meal. There’s got to be a balance. I do think that work shouldn’t drop down a rung on the literary merit ladder because it takes place in 1840 or 1930. And it doesn’t, always—I don’t think anyone doubted the literary merit of Ragtime, which pioneered what I think we can safely say is now a trend of weaving real historical figures into novels or reinventing them entirely, or more recently Hilary Mantel’s work, or Transatlantic. But then again, those books are primarily about men. Maybe there is a bit of, “Oh, there’s a woman on the cover, so this must be a romance,” that happens. And if it’s a romance—especially an “interracial romance”—it can’t possibly be addressing any larger issues, like gender and race, or self-fashioning and the maritime imagination, or exploring history as a series of passages from light to dark. Oh, and there’s a woman on the cover, so it must be less literary. That sort of thing. I don’t know. I’ve gone off the topic, I think.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also said that the writing of this book really took shape for you when you let Maria Mitchell’s real life events inspire your narrative instead of dictate it. How did you find the right balance between historical accuracy and the necessary mystery of fiction?

BRILL

I was forced. In 2006, I went to Spain with my trusty research backpack, which had all my journals, my special notes I’d taken in dusty old archives with my special pencils on acid-free paper, you know. I checked the bag for my return trip, and Iberia lost it. They promised me 1000 Euros, which I never got, but worse than that I never got the bag back. I was devastated. I’d been working on this book for ten years, I had hundreds of pages, but I didn’t have a full draft, and I thought—this is it. I’m never going to finish. I licked my wounds for probably a year. When I got pregnant, I realized I needed to decide if I was ready to abandon the book completely. It felt like, this is it. So I decided to read what I’d written to see what was there, and while all the research was very accurate, the spark, the story I really wanted to tell, that girl on her roof, it just wasn’t there. If I wanted to tell her story, I couldn’t rely on the details of a real person’s life. I just had to make it up. I had to trust myself, and go forward. It was kind of like becoming a parent. Nobody knows what the hell to do. Nobody. It’s trial by fire.

So I decided to start again, and though I’d already made a few changes, like introducing Isaac’s character, I went forward with a new draft that deviated in numerous ways from Maria Mitchell’s real life, and I finished it days before my first child was born. I spent the next four years rewriting till it was ready to go.

The nice thing about taking all these years to write the book is that I really grew up. I didn’t have the necessary depth at age 25 to do what I wanted to do. I was lacking in experience; lacking a real understanding of commitment and responsibility, all the aspects of life that are harder to grasp fully when you’re very young. I had a much more robust understanding of these things toward the end of the process.

You just have to go for it. Wake up. Be scared. You can’t go back. Trust in the process. It won’t be good at the beginning, but you can make it good.

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