This week is for all you literary science geeks out there. (We know you exist!) Our guest is Elizabeth Rosner, author of the novel ELECTRIC CITY and the poetry collection GRAVITY (both released in October). As probably the nerdiest of the Debs, ELECTRIC CITY especially has huge appeal for me. I’m reading it now and it’s amazing. I met Liz a few years ago when I took one of her writing workshops. She’s a wonderful teacher and a gorgeous writer. Here’s what Liz has to say about her latest books.
You’re an award-winning poet as well as a novelist. Does one form of writing affect the other?
The practice of poetry has been a kind of ongoing apprenticeship for me. What I mean is that even after years of writing prose, I discover that each time I attempt to compose a poem, I’m reminded that every word matters — in the sense of precision of language and also in the sense of sound and rhythm. Writing is a profoundly visual and auditory experience for me, whatever form I’m working in. Over the years I’ve also learned that while my prose seems to emerge in a lyrical way, my poetry is often quite narrative. You might say that on my good days, the two forms are almost indistinguishable — both by design as well as by accident.
In your first novel, The Speed of Light, one of your characters was a scientist. Now in your third novel, Electric City, you’re again writing about scientists. What is it about scientists that draws you in?
I think my love affair with scientific language and scientific awareness began while I was working on The Speed of Light. In order to write authentically from inside a brilliant scientist’s pov (for the character of Julian), I immersed myself in physics dictionaries and all manner of science-based texts. At first this was a desperate attempt to educate myself, but there was so much gorgeous metaphor I wanted to capture entire paragraphs, and I ended up inserting those directly into the book.
Then again, if you look at my earliest writing about my family (see under: Gravity), you’ll notice that growing up with my father being an inventor and research scientist also had a powerful impact on my way of seeing the world. More than thirty years after leaving my family of origin, I realized that it was time to write about the town in which I was raised, and (surprise surprise!) the scientific history of the place pushed its way into the foreground. Electric City is both a love letter to my hometown and also an exploration of the very concept of “home.” Scientific imagery and emotional landscape are very closely intertwined for me.
Are the characters in Electric City based on real people?
This is definitely the most “fact-based” of all of my novels, both in terms of characters directly drawn from real life and with regard to specific historical events as well. In particular, although he has been rather forgotten by history, Charles Proteus Steinmetz really did live and work and die in Schenectady NY (aka Electric City). He was a fascinating and brilliant man who transformed our understanding and adaptation of electricity. The more I researched him the more I felt compelled to bring him back to life in my novel. The character of his adopted granddaughter Midge Hayden is also based on a real person. As soon as I discovered that Steinmetz (who was a dwarf and a hunchback) had nicknamed her “Midget,” I knew she belonged in the book with him. Other characters were invented by my blending of memory and imagination — some people I recall from childhood and some people I wish I had known.
You’ve also published a poetry collection, GRAVITY, at the same time as your novel, ELECTRIC CITY. First, are you crazy to be promoting two books at once? And second, what would you like to tell us about your poetry collection?
Yes, I’m crazy! 🙂 The two-book simultaneous publication was my idea, I must admit, because I feel so strongly that Gravity is the autobiographical companion to my fiction (all three of the novels, in fact). Themes and scenes that have both inspired and haunted my life appear and reappear in all of my work, and as expressed through my characters. Readers often seem to be curious about the “truth” behind the fiction, and in my case those answers and explanations can be readily found in the pages of Gravity. As I said earlier, I like to imagine that holding my various publications side by side, you are being given a multidimensional “portrait of the artist.” Or maybe “portrait of the artist looking inside and outside herself.”
In addition to writing, you also teach workshops and classes. What are the things you’ve learned from your students?
My students teach me how to listen deeply. Every time I practice tuning into their authentic self-discovery, I’m similarly helped to remember the unique sound of my own voice. They also teach me the infinite value of having a sense of humor, of not taking oneself too seriously! Last but definitely not least, when I’m teaching, I get to practice wide-hearted kindness — toward others and toward myself. The gifts of teaching are immeasurable and ongoing. I believe my writing life would be tremendously limited without my students to keep me honest, humble, brave and present.
Thanks for stopping by the Debutante Ball, Liz!
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, December 19 to enter to win a copy of ELECTRIC CITY. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Elizabeth Rosner is the author of three novels, THE SPEED OF LIGHT, BLUE NUDE, and the newly released ELECTRIC CITY. She is also the author of a new book of poetry GRAVITY. She lives in Berkley, California.