What 'The Heavens'? This Extraordinary New Book Feels Like 5 Novels In One

Mar 2, 2019
Originally published on March 2, 2019 7:00 am

Sandra Newman freely admits that her new novel, The Heavens, is almost impossible to describe. "I found that you can give about five different descriptions of it," she says, and all of them will be "equally true." She's essentially written five novels in one.

Newman's never been one to shy away from complexity. She created an entirely new language for her 2015 novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star. A literary agent tried — unsuccessfully — to persuade her to write in plain English, and, in retrospect, "he was absolutely right," Newman says with a touch of irony. The book might have sold more copies, she says, "but it wouldn't have been a particularly special book."

Special books are Sandra Newman's specialty, and The Heavens is no exception. It starts out simply enough: A young woman named Kate meets a young man named Ben at a party in New York and soon they are a couple. Before long, Kate tells Ben that she has a recurring dream. In it, she is a woman named Emilia who lives in Elizabethan England and is having an affair with a married nobleman. She becomes involved with another man named Will — as in, William Shakespeare. Each time Kate wakes up from the dream, the real world has changed in ways both large and small.

"When she wakes up there will be a different president, [or] her room will look different," Newman explains. "She will have done things that she had no memory of, but other people want to hold her responsible for. So it becomes an increasingly chaotic and frightening world that she wakes up in as herself."

At first, Kate thought of her dream as a special mission that could save the world — but she becomes convinced that the dream is causing the world to change. Her personal life keeps shifting — a constant stream of family and friends surrounds her, but each time she emerges from the dream her relation to them changes. So does the political reality: When the book begins in 2000, the U.S. is lead by President Chen — a woman and an environmentalist. Later, Kate wakes up and George Bush is the president and the Sept. 11 attacks are underway.

Newman sees these disorienting shifts as a metaphor for the Trump era. "The world is changing beyond recognition, and things happen that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago," Newman says. "We don't understand how we got to this place. We're looking at history and trying to find all of the strands — all of the causes of this strange effect that we see all around us."

Then the story takes another turn as Ben starts to believe that the woman he loves is completely losing her grip on reality. The evidence mounts and it becomes clear that Kate is experiencing mental illness. This part of the story comes from Ben's point of view, as he struggles to help Kate.

Newman says she wanted to write about what it's like to love somebody who has a serious mental illness: "How it kind of eclipses your own life and your own concerns," she says. "There's this terrible tug of war between your loyalty to your own life, and your own dreams, and your loyalty to them and their safety."

In case you're counting, we're up to four novels now: historical fiction, time traveling fantasy, political allegory and social realism. But Newman said you could come up with five ways to describe her novel ... so what's left? "I can't write a book without some kind of love story in it," Newman says.

The Heavens is all of the above. And if you decide to delve into it, Newman will take you on quite a ride through her vivid imagination.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Novelists have to have active imaginations. For her last novel, "The Country Of Ice Cream Star," Sandra Newman made up a whole new language. How would you say BJ Leiderman writes our theme music in that language? In her new novel, "The Heavens," a recurring dream changes the world in big and small ways each time the dreamer wakes up. NPR's Lynn Neary has this story of a writer who likes to do things her own way.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Sandra Newman was working on "The Country Of Ice Cream Star," an agent told her she would reach a wider audience if she wrote in plain English instead of her invented dialect. But Newman wouldn't back down - a decision she now recalls with some irony.

SANDRA NEWMAN: He was absolutely right that that book would have sold a lot more copies if I had not had the language. But it wouldn't have been a particularly special book.

NEARY: And Newman freely admits that her latest novel, "The Heavens," is almost impossible to describe.

NEWMAN: It is really hard. I found that you can give about five different descriptions of it, which are equally true and give you the idea of five completely different books.

NEARY: The book starts out simply enough. A young woman named Kate meets a young man named Ben at a party in New York. And they are soon a couple. Before long, Ben learns that Kate has a recurring dream. In it, she's a woman named Emilia who lives in Elizabethan England.

NEWMAN: (Reading) Kate had started having that dream when she was a child. At first, it only came a few times a year. But now she had it most nights. On mornings after she'd had the dream, she felt a particular sublime importance, as if the dream were a secret mission on which depended the fate of millions, as if it held the key to the salvation of the world.

NEARY: Kate dreams she is the mistress of a wealthy man. She becomes involved with another man named Will, as in Will Shakespeare. Increasingly, the dream becomes more real to Kate than her own life. And, says Newman, Kate feels safer when dreaming.

NEWMAN: She knows what's going on. She knows who the queen is because it's Queen Elizabeth. And she knows who the people are going to be. But when she wakes up, there will be a different president. Her room will look different. And she will have done things that she has no memory of but other people want to hold her responsible for. So it becomes an increasingly chaotic and frightening world that she wakes up in as herself.

NEARY: Kate becomes convinced that her dream is causing the world to change. Her personal life keeps shifting. A constant stream of family and friends surrounds her. But each time she emerges from the dream, her relation to them changes - so does the political reality. When the book begins, it is the year 2000, and President Chen, an environmentalist, is the leader at the United States. Later, the president is Bush, and 9/11 is happening when she wakes up. Newman sees these disorienting shifts as a metaphor for the Trump era.

NEWMAN: We see that the world is changing beyond recognition, and things happen that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. And we don't understand how we got to this place. We're looking at history and trying to find all of the strands - all of the causes of this strange effect that we see all around us.

NEARY: But then the story takes another turn, as Ben starts to believe that the woman he loves is quite literally insane. Suddenly, the evidence mounts, and it seems clear Kate really is mentally ill. This part of the story, says Newman, comes from Ben's point of view.

NEWMAN: For me, it became a lot about what it is like to love somebody and be very close to somebody who has a serious mental illness and how it kind of eclipses your own life and your own concerns. And there's this terrible kind of tug of war between your loyalty to your own life and your own dreams and your loyalty to them and their safety.

NEARY: So in case you're counting, we're up to four novels now - historical fiction, a time-travelling fantasy, political allegory and social realism. But if you remember, Newman said you could come up with five ways to describe her novel which would all be accurate. So what's left? Well, let's go back to the beginning. A young man meets a young woman. It's a love story.

NEWMAN: There's something about love stories - and I suppose this is true for 90 percent of writers - that I can't write a book without some kind of love story in it.

NEARY: So it's a rom-com?

(LAUGHTER)

NEWMAN: It is. It's the marriage plot, basically. That's what it is.

NEARY: "The Heavens" is all of that. And if you decide to delve into it, Sandra Newman will take you on quite a ride through her very vivid imagination. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.