By Daniel Ford
Author Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, The Sunlit Night, landed on our most recent “5 Books That Need To Be On Your Radar” because of its charming quirkiness. And, maybe, the delicious baked goods supplied by the fictional Gregoriov Bakery!
Dinerstein recently answered my questions about when she decided to be a writer, how poetry has influenced her writing, and the inspiration for The Sunlit Night.
Daniel Ford: We usually start with a question about writing, but since you’re a New Yorker: What’s your favorite place to eat in the city?
Rebecca Dinerstein: I love Brucie in Cobble Hill. I think they’re making some of the most inventive and flavorful dishes in the city. I love their wallpaper, and the people who work there are darlings. Every night they have a new flavor of butter!
DF: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
RD: My mother says I’ve been a writer since age six, when I wrote an essay about the word “wonderful.” But for most of my childhood I wanted to be a professional tap dancer. It wasn’t until the end of high school and the beginning of college that I turned away from theater and toward writing.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
RD: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was one of the first books that I really adored: it taught me how to find the marvelous in the everyday world. In high school, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men floored me. It seemed to contain answers to questions I hadn’t ever imagined asking. The poets Louise Glück and Mark Strand have always inspired me.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
RD: I try to make writing a ritual. I’m a morning person, so I start with coffee and get straight to work. Every day I reread what I wrote the day before, make any urgent edits or corrections, and then let that tinkering propel me into new writing. I try to write about a thousand words a day until I’ve completed a draft. No music! But I love to be seated near a window, so I can stare at a tree or two whenever I need to take a break.
DF: How did the idea for The Sunlit Night originate?
RD: It started with three characters (Yasha, Vassily, and Olyana—a Russian family in Brooklyn), my love for bread (hence their family bakery), and my love for Norse Mythology (hence their journey to the Viking Museum). I wanted these characters to travel north and explore the edge of the earth. That’s all I knew at the start! The love story came later and took me by surprise.
DF: Your novel features such lyrical prose that it’s easy to imagine this whole story starting out as a long poem. How did you develop your style and how did you adapt your poetry skills to novel writing?
RD: The first draft of my novel was exactly a long poem! I’d written 200 pages of story-less, structure-less, poetic imagery that I then had to delete. As I started again, building a plot and a clearer narrative order, I tried to maintain the lyrical sensibility. I hope there is a little poetry in this prose!
DF: Readers have encountered The Sunlit Night’s two main characters, Frances and Yasha, in literature before—two young, disillusioned people who find something in each other—but you give them such a fresh and grounded spin it felt like I was reading a love story for the first time. How did you go about crafting these characters?
RD: I’ve been writing about Yasha for 10 years. He’s my main man—I feel I know him well. Frances came about after I’d been working on the novel for several years. Yasha needed some company! Frances’s perspective allows the novel to express certain sensitivities and observations that wouldn’t have occurred to Yasha. I’m glad they found each other.
DF: Yasha’s father’s funeral is one of the most beautiful and honestly written things I’ve read in some time. How tough was it to write that exploration of pain and grief, but also retaining Yasha’s edge and coldness to his mother?
RD: That’s very nice! The funeral scene has always been the center of the novel, in my mind. It was one of the first scenes I wrote. The full cast of the novel gathers for the occasion, and each person is acting out of vulnerability, sorrow, and a sense that life will now change. Since they’ve all come together, their various conflicts and attractions naturally play out over the course of the ceremony. It was both tough and exhilarating to write!
DF: In your tour diary on LitHub, you said that you started writing your novel while you were in Norway. How much of yourself and your experiences ended up in the final draft?
RD: I hope my admiration and affection for the Norwegian landscape appear in the book; I wanted to praise the beauty I found there. Otherwise, the book took truly fictional turns. I would have loved to cover a barn with yellow paint or discover a goat made of cheese, but sadly I never did! Frances and Yasha get to experience a few of my wildest Norwegian dreams.
DF: The Sunlit Night has gotten rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Jonathan Safran Foer, and Oprah Magazine. What has that experience been like, and what’s next for you?
RD: I’ve been stunned by the kindness of my readers, teachers, critics, and friends. It’s been a joyful adventure after many years of hard and solitary work. Up next: back to work! As soon as The Sunlit Night’s tour winds down, I’m putting my head down and starting a new novel.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
RD: Don’t question yourself until you’ve finished your first draft! Put all doubt on hold until you’ve got a complete work in your hands: at that point, you’ll be so proud and excited, you’ll find the energy to then go back and edit it mercilessly! Finishing the book, no matter how long it takes, is key.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
RD: My secret aspiration is to perform as a backup dancer in a Ciara music video.