Your first novel is about the relationship between an aspiring female astronomer on Quaker Nantucket in the 1840s and an ambitious black Azorean whaler she’s tutoring in celestial navigation. That must have been a breeze!
Is this a question?
I’m just wondering if you are from Nantucket, or an amateur astronomer or something?
A sailor? A math whiz? A history PhD?
No. I knew nothing about any of it. That’s partly why it took me most of my adult life to research and write.
What was the other part?
I missed the “How to write a novel” memo.
The one that says, “Keep going until you have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” I researched until I knew everything about 19th century Nantucket Quakers, whaling, race relations on Nantucket, and how a chronometer works. But then I just kept writing the first few chapters over and over.
But isn’t the book about a real person? Didn’t that make it easier?
It actually made it harder, I think. The book is inspired by the life and work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America. But it’s not about her. I borrowed the setting and her goal (discovering a comet), and some of the circumstances of her life, then combined them with a fictional character and plot. Her love interest, Isaac Martin, is a complete fiction, as is her brother, Edward, and most of the other characters in the book.
So it’s a 19th century interracial love story?
Well. Yes, technically. But it’s really about a woman coming to terms with her own desires. I guess I’d say that female desire is sort of a theme here—and not just physical. The desire to contribute fully to society, the desire for emotional connection, the desire to be part of a community of like-minded—
So it’s like, Fifty Shades of Grey Dresses? On a whaleship? That sounds awesome!
Well, no… I mean, yes, that’s EXACTLY RIGHT. Print that.
Is this book for women? There’s a woman on the cover.
I’ll tell you what I tell my four-year-old daughter: stories are just like colors, toys, and flavors. They are not for boys or girls. They are for everyone. The end.
So why is there a lady…
Can we move on?
Sure. Let’s talk about your background a little. The back of your book says you were an MTV producer. Can you introduce me to Beyoncé? Please? I can pay…
Sorry, I can’t. I worked mostly on “pro-social” initiatives, mostly on shows funded by The Kaiser Family Foundation. We tried to empower young people to make healthy, positive choices about sex and avoid STDs and unwanted pregnancy.
Oh. [Pause]. Okay, moving on. You must have an MFA.
I thought you had to have an MFA to publish a novel.
Guess I missed that memo, too.
Anything else you want to say about the book?
I hope you like it.
AMY BRILL is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV, and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Millay Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. In 1996, Brill took a trip to Nantucket and saw the girlhood home of astronomer Maria Mitchell, which planted the seed for what became her debut novel, The Movement of Stars.