Interview with Rebecca Dinerstein

Rebecca Dinerstein holds a B.A. from Yale and an MFA from New York University, where she was a Jaffe Graduate Fellow. Her poetry collection Lofoten was published in 2012 and her highly acclaimed debut novel, The Sunlit Night, in 2015.  Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker online, among others.

Native New Yorker, Rebecca Dinerstein, headed to Lofoton ­– an archipelago in the very north of Norway in the pursuit of writing poems for a year at the top of the world.  The outcome was two-fold: her bilingual collection of poetry titled Lofoten, which was released by Aschehoug, one of the largest independent publishing companies in Norway, in 2012, and her debut novel, The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury, 2015), set in a Norwegian landscape, which was hailed as one of the best books of the Summer.

Our conversation took place on a cloudy night in Midtown. We both arrived on time, but separately in different cafés. After realizing and correcting the mistake, we ordered our coffees and sat down to chat.

Elizabeth Sochko: Your first book is a collection of poems and now you’ve come out with this novel that’s doing great- everybody loves it. Were you surprised by the reception of both? Was there a very different reaction to each of them?

Rebecca Dinerstein: The book of poems came out in Norway. It was a Norwegian publisher, and the reception there was very warm for different reasons. I got to go on national Norwegian television and radios several times because they couldn’t believe that a girl from Manhattan had chosen, for no particular reason, to move to not just Norway, but the very north of Norway, learn Norwegian to a pretty functional level, and write about it.

It’s a fairly small country and they thought it was fun. The New York / Norway connection was fun. It wasn’t really about my poems. Most of the critical feedback about the poems was about the translation, which I worked on in conjunction with my publisher. The reception and press about it was really like – Girl From New York Moves to Norway! It was all super miraculous and one of the great joyous experiences of my life.

ES: It is interesting to me, having read your work, because you’re alone for the most part and still managed to learn Norwegian. When I’ve traveled and no one is pressuring me to speak, I don’t. I’m not sure I would be able to do what you did.

RD: It was a unique situation where I was incredibly solitary for the beginning part of it and I wanted to connect to the community I was in. Even though they all speak English, and I definitely didn’t need to, I just wanted to. I had so few ways of fitting in.  Actually, I just wanted to have a better sense of what the words on the packages in the grocery store meant. And I started learning it word by word that way. After enough time spent around people speaking Norwegian, I got more of an ear for it. Then my second year I spent dating and living with a Norwegian guy, and our entire relationship was in Norwegian. At a certain point pretty quickly, my entire life really was completely in Norwegian.

ES: It’s funny to me that you went so far.

RD: Yeah, that was what was funny to the Norwegians. It’s funny to me. I don’t know why it happened. It was totally, totally serendipitous and bizarre, but a great, great adventure.

ES: There is a part that seems glamorous: to be away, to be isolated, and to be in this amazing magical fairy land…

RD: It is a magical fairy land.

ES: But during the time where it’s total darkness, were you ever like, this is a huge mistake?

RD: I never thought it was a huge mistake, but I can’t tell you how profoundly unglamorous it was. I was very cold. And I was wearing huge, huge down parkas inside. And there was no reason, for example, to shower because nobody was there. Nobody could see how my hair looked. It was just me and the elements, kind of, battling my own sense of, the only person who’s moderating me, or controlling me, or responding to me in anyway was myself so I had to kind of navigate that. But even then, it was phenomenally beautiful. The couple hours that aren’t completely black are stunning. Pink and purple.

ES: When writing a book about that landscape, were you afraid that nobody would really get it? Were there things that you were hesitant to write about your experience because you thought it wouldn’t translate well?

RD: The first draft of my novel was basically an ode to that landscape in a form that didn’t translate. It was super rhapsodic. It was very based in myth. I had been reading the Prose Edda and trying to turn my characters into Norse gods in this very artificial and unreasonable way, and it wound up being way too abstract and I don’t want to say too lyrical, but too dense.

When I turned that draft in it was totally incomprehensible to readers. I literally started again. I don’t have a single page from that. I basically rewrote the same landscape. Same mood in language that focused on events and people and story as opposed to focusing on the general atmosphere and that helped it turn into a novel. But it took six years.

ES: I wonder how heavily you rely on choice as something that guides your work? You chose to leave for Norway, but once you’re there you don’t exactly have a choice to leave. I like that the novel shows how everyone chose to behave, or just how to deal, with what was happening around them.

RD: I think that’s a really nice reading. A great deal of my work in the past couple years has been weighing spontaneity against discipline and if I hadn’t taken the risk and the uncalculated, or totally unpremeditated, choice to throw myself up there, I wouldn’t have been in a place where I was so inspired that I could knuckle down and work very hard.

ES: I don’t think many people who want to write or “get away” would be able to last.

RD: When I got up there, I just wanted to finish the thing. That was always my goal. And that steered me astray at times because I was so set on finishing the novel before I knew what it was about. Then I finished this first draft that made no sense, and I had to go back and do it all over again. And frankly that cost me two years and two hundred pages and a whole lot of work. But that basic drive to do the thing, helped me see through a lot.

ES: Do you consider yourself a poet or a fiction writer, or do you go in waves?

RD: I guess I just consider myself a writer and don’t think too much of the genre division. I would love to write more poetry in the future. My career feels more defined by the term novelist just because that’s the industry I’m in right now. I still feel very connected to both forms and I like the way they dip in and out of each other.

ES: Do you read more poetry or fiction?

RD: I read a lot of both. My entire undergrad was poetry. I went to Yale as a Musical Theatre student. I was a pretty serious tap dancer. Then I took Louise Glück’s poetry class and that was my new life.

ES: I imagine Glück could sway anyone into poetry.

RD: Exactly. She very simply just changed the track I was on. From there I did  three years of pure poetry study. So I definitely wrote and read more poetry than prose in college. Then I did my MFA in fiction.

ES: Backtracking to what you said earlier about wanting to read the grocery packages. Can we talk about those? What were your favorite products?

RD: Oh God. It’s so good. Bread in Norway is uniquely heavenly. It’s very thick and dark and it only comes unsliced, so you wind up slicing these big thick slices. And you put Norwegian butter on it which is it’s own creamy thing. And you put cheese on top of the butter, if you can imagine it. Brown cheese was very special and very precious to me. I tried many different kinds of it, and I have my favorites. I like the very tangy goat cheese kind, and I also like the kind that’s a mix of goat cheese and cow’s milk, and then I also like the kind that’s just cow’s milk! So I basically like all kinds of brown cheese.

ES: Can you find anything similar in New York?

RD: You can buy brown cheese at the Bedford cheese shop. The real kind. The goat cheese kind. We recently did an event at Egg in Williamsburg and they served it.

But what you can’t find is the Norwegian bread and butter. So the whole vibe isn’t there. I don’t even try to replicate it… I tried to make it when I first got home and it was so depressing I haven’t tried since.  It’s okay, I missed pizza when I was in Norway, and I miss brown cheese when I’m here. And it’s okay.

ES: A loved passage of mine from your novel reads, “The waves rolling out said: nothing here is yours to keep.” This speaks to the very humbling self-awareness of trying not to be possessive in a world where we’re always trying to possess things. I’m wondering how your experience there humbled you?

RD: You’ve answered your own question. It humbled me. As I mentioned, I grew up in Manhattan and I was a musical theatre person, I was very loud and I was singing and dancing all the time. Then I was in Norway by myself for so long that I just became much more quiet and much more comfortable in my own skin and I needed less from others and I needed to display less of myself.  I came back a much quieter person, and I’m so grateful for that.

ES: To close, I’ve always wondered, what did your parents think about your—

RD: They thought it was bat-shit crazy. I will never forget when I first arrived up there, and my dad said, “Now what?” It was just completely unclear of why I was there or what I was going to do. And it didn’t seem likely that I really would stay there for a year and write. It was all so ridiculous. And I was very fortunate that it was even possible. I was fortunate that there happened to be two people who came in and out of the place where I was staying occasionally with a car. What was so spectacular and moving about those years is that I kept encountering kindness in these places and basing my life on it. It was just an endlessly humbling, simplifying, and essentializing experience.

ES: It’s a nice break and time to be away from the madness.

RD: I almost feel like it was the last time it was even possible. It was right before smart phones. I have to say it was different in 2009, even though it was only a few years ago… I didn’t have a smartphone. I wasn’t on Twitter or Instagram. The most contact I had was email, which I was very grateful for.  I might not have stayed as long as I stayed had I not had any interaction, but I was only using the internet for email. That feels like a much simpler contact in itself.

ES: Somebody now could potentially go, but have their phone, be on Instagram, etc.

RD: It would have been different. I would have felt pressure to express myself more immediately had I been responsible for tweeting and Instagramming when I was there. I would have showered more. You know what I mean? I would have done those things more and I would have written less and I wouldn’t have focused.


Rebecca Dinerstein’ s novel The Sunlit Night is available in paperback May 2016.  


Elizabeth Sochko was raised in South Carolina. She studied English at the College of Charleston and is pursing her poetry MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review and Miscellany, and she is a contributing guest writer for Man Repeller. She lives in New York.