Prose on Poetry: Discussing The Weight of Ink with Rachel Kadish
by Lauren McCormick | July 2017
We sat down with Massachusetts fiction writer Rachel Kadish to talk with her about poetry—her relationship to it, as well as the relationship between poetry and her new novel The Weight of Ink, out this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
About the Book: A Review
I think the most appropriate word to describe Rachel Kadish’s new book is all-encompassing. The Weight of Ink is set in both the plague-ridden London of the 1660s and the early twenty-first century. This interwoven tale follows two brilliant women in a race against time and I was hooked from the first chapter. The language is as compelling as it is immersive, which is exactly what I crave from a century-sweeping historical fiction.
In the modern timeline, we’re following Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a passion for Jewish history. When a former student asks her to look at a sealed room full seventeenth-century Jewish documents, she enlists the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student, to go through the documents in a race against another team of historians. As they translate the documents, Helen embarks on a mission to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, who they only know as ‘Aleph.’
Kadish’s writing style fully supports this ambitious tale. I felt as if all five of my senses were constantly being used, from feeling the delicate texture of centuries-old paper to smelling the streets of 1660s London, this book caught me and held on until the end.
Hear an Excerpt from The Weight of Ink
Read by the Author
In the second excerpt, set in contemporary London, Helen Watt, a professor of History, answers a call from a former student whose renovation of a seventeenth-century house has been interrupted by the inconvenient discovery of a cache of documents under the staircase. Helen, who has been called in to examine the papers, has a severe hand tremor that bars her from handling fragile documents.
Flash Conversation: Prose on Poetry!
This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Lauren McCormick: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me! I just finished your book a couple of days ago and I really enjoyed the experience. I don't read nearly enough historical fiction, but the ones I've enjoyed the most make use of two timelines, like yours. It's such a beautifully cyclical way of telling a story.
I love how densely packed the language is in The Weight of Ink. I read some sentences two or three times and I gleaned something new out of them every time. This would also be a winning scenario for poetry—a line that densely packed with meaning keeps your reader engaged. There was also a really cohesive fluidity from one sentence to another in your book, which made reading it feel like reading poetry at times.
What is your relationship with poetry and how does that influence your prose? What's your process for writing prose and how does that change when you approach poetry? Furthermore, how do those processes influence each other?
Rachel Kadish: I’m so glad to be in this conversation with you! And I’m so grateful for what you say about the language in the novel—coming from a poet, this means a lot to me!
You asked me about my relationship with poetry. Mainly I’m in awe of poets. The rest of us are breathing literary air, but poetry is pure oxygen. I read poetry, I turn to it for meaning and music, I turn to it for all the reasons we turn to the best of art—for solace and wonder and to regain a lost sense of direction. I also turn to it when I need to clear my head, and sometimes when I need a break from the long winding alleys of sentences and paragraphs. But other than a few strange little prose poems buried in my computer files, I can’t write it. My imagination inevitably turns in the wrong direction for poetry. A poet friend of mine says I have a “plot-shaped brain”: when I fall in love with a character or a moment, I want to know what happens next and next and next.
But there’s one point of affinity I’ve noted—something I seem to have in common with poets I’ve discussed it with, but not with most prose writers. The way I build sentences—the way I’ve always instinctively done it—turns out not to be at all typical for a prose writer. I’ve always assumed it’s because I have a music background (many years of classical violin, and some singing and other things along the way)—but I often have a feeling for the music I’m trying to write before I know the words. I'll figure out the rhythm of a sentence before I work out the meaning; when characters are in an argument, I’ll often block out the argument's cadence before I have any idea of its substance. I tend to know whether I want each outburst to be percussive or sly; long-and-looping or pop-you-in-the-face blunt. As a result of this, when I start writing a scene my page can look like a extended Mad Lib—I’m shaping the form of the lines before I fill in the most pivotal words.
The only people I've met who don’t think that’s bizarre are poets. So maybe there’s something in how I write that’s aligned with poetry. Somehow, though, it doesn’t translate into an ability to write poems. And here’s the point at which I confess that most of the poems I’ve written in the past few years are a whole lot of occasional poems in honor of lost teeth (I neither confirm nor deny that I am the tooth fairy). But other than poems tucked under my kids’ pillows with dollar coins, I haven’t attempted poetry.
…well, except for the one deliberately-bad seventeenth-century poem I put into The Weight of Ink! That was pure joy to write, because it comes at a pivotal point in the plot near the end of the novel—and what I had to do was write a poem in the style of seventeenth-century poetry in the way someone with no talent for poetry would write it. Writing that gave me a chance to indulge my literary-nerd side, and gently mock the ways bad poets write, without having to take on the actual challenge of writing good poetry. I leave that to the pros.
I love so much poetry that’s purely in the moment. The first time I read Susan Wheeler’s work, it knocked me over. I thought: this is what language can do. But some of my favorite poetry is also doing some of the same work historical or political fiction does: excavating the past and the present to turn up what we need to understand. I'm thinking of Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, Martha Collins’s Admit One, Kim Garcia’s Drone, among others.
Rachel Kadish is the award-winning author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, as well as the novella I Was Here. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere.
She has been a fiction fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, has received the John Gardner Fiction Award and the Koret Foundation's Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award, and was a writer-in-residence at Stanford University.
She lives outside Boston and teaches in Lesley University's MFA Program in Creative Writing.