Excerpted from The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Rosner. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Richard Zimler's most recent novels are The Angelic Darkness and
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which has been a bestseller in eleven coun-
tries. His new novel, Hunting Midnight, will be published by Delacorte
Press in July 2003. He lives in Porto, Portugal, and teaches journalism at
the University of Porto. His Web site is www.zimler.com.
RZ: Novels sometime begin wtih one particular image, idea, or conflict that won't let the author go, that forces him or her to start on the project. What about The Speed of Light first gave you that sense of urgency and purpose?
ER: The very first image that appeared to me, more than eleven
years ago, was an image of an apartment with Julian and his
wall of televisions. I had no idea who he was or why he had
all of those TV sets, but I was completely intrigued to find
out. Somehow I also knew he had a sister living downstairs,
and it was their relationship I wanted to explore. What kind of
family had they come from, what blessings and what damage did
they carry because of that family? I was particularly compelled
by my sense that these two siblings had responded very differ-
ently to their history, and yet it was their shared history that
connected them. I wrote a very short story about Julian and his
sister, then called Pomona, but on some level I knew that they
were characters I wanted to develop in a much fuller way.
When I decided to try to write the novel, I found that the ques-
tion of Julian's extreme introversion kept haunting me. At first
I explored the idea he was the son of a Vietnam veteran who
had been scarred by some type of post-traumatic stress dis-
order. Eventually, with a kind of slow dawning, I realized that
his family history had to be based on something I knew very
intimately, which was the inheritance that came with being a
daughter of Holocaust survivors.
RZ: What kinds of feelings did you have about Julian at the beginning?
ER: The very first words I heard him saying to me were, "I was
teaching myself not to feel." And I felt great compassion for him,
because there is some part of me that recognizes his suffering and
his desire for numbness. I also felt it was the depth of his sensi-
tivity that made him compelling. Pomona became Paula when I
began to take seriously the idea of her music as the opposite of Ju-
lian's silence. As I have always imagined how much courage it
would take to be a singer, I wanted to see for myself what my
imagination could do with that role. I even took voice lessons to
feel my own body learning how to find the source of breath and
RZ: So Sola was the last of the three main characters to come to you?
ER: Yes, I felt strongly that I needed a third character, someone who
would influence and change my other two characters, but at first
I thought she would be a Holocaust survivor herself. Gradually
I began to understand that this person needed to come from a
time and place that would expand the story. When Sola came to
life, when I could hear her accent and her way of expressing her-
self, I felt the novel truly begin to take shape.
RZ: In addition to the narratives provided by Julian, Paula, and Sola, Julian's scientific definitions serve as a kind of fourth voice. How did the idea for them come from you?
ER: At one point early on, when I was trying to figure out how
Julian supported himself, I thought he worked as a freelance
TV repairman! But then I wanted to explore more of his intel-
lect, and started getting excited about him being a scientific ge-
nius of some kind. I heard someone talking about extreme ultra-
violet astrophysics, and then found myself in my parents's house,
drawn toward shelf after shelf of science books belonging to
my father. The language of science began to dazzle me with its
metaphors. I was astonished to realize that scientific language
wasn't cold and detached, but that it could be evocative and full
of implied meaning.
RZ: Yes, each reader can interpret Julian's definitions in his or her own way. Was keeping some of the meaning of the book open in this way important to you?
ER: One of the joys of reading, for me, includes the experience of in-
terpreting what I read, finding subtleties, and openings I can ex-
plore. I hope that readers of my novel will be similarly willing to
discover their own connections and associations. With regard
specifically to the definitions, I actually wondered if some people
might think they needed to understand all the science in order to
understand the book. But my wish, of course, is that the science
will be a window through which they might find new ways of
seeing the characters and their interactions.
RZ: Balancing the interweaving narratives must have been a big challenge. What was that process like?
ER: What emerged as I wrote the book was a kind of faith. I had to
trust my inner listening-to allow the voice of each character
to speak to me for as long as he or she spoke. Then either another
character would interrupt and I would switch, or else there
would be a stretch of silence. I had to be very patient and accept
that the story would unfold as the characters revealed them-
selves; that the narration would carry all three of them forward
at their own pace. For a long time I just wrote pieces, not quite
knowing how the novel would all fit together. Then there were
months during which I had to try to arrange the puzzle into a
pattern that made sense.
RZ: Julian and Paula tell their stories in the past tense, but Sola uses the present tense. Why? What advantages did that give you and her?
ER: It was relatively late in the writing process that I decided to keep
all of Sola's sections in present tense. It suddenly seemed so right
for her, to be able to use language to remind herself of being in
the present moment, and to echo the way she uses her sense of
touch to keep herself present. I also felt this was a way of keep-
ing myself tuned in to her nonnative English. She is such an im-
portant teacher for me, the way she is able to balance the burdens
of her past with her willingness to keep experiencing life in all
of its complexity.
RZ: Sola does indeed want to remain in the present tense, but the past has a very strong gravitational pull on her, just as it does on Julian and Paula. Did you feel that pull lessen on yourself as you finished the book? Did writing it free you in some way?
ER: Well, yes and no. In some sense I've found that I am more at ease
with my history, almost as if writing the novel allowed me some
breathing room to ask some of the what-if questions that have
been on my mind for so many years. For example, with the char-
acter of Paula, I was able to ask myself, What if I had resisted the
pull of my family's sadness? Would I be any better off? The
novel helped me affirm that in fact I feel richer and more com-
plete because of that legacy. Strangely, though, I feel that writing
this novel has also led me even further into a journey of self-
exploration by way of the past. My current novel-in-progress
also seems to be evolving in that direction-I'm once again
working with characters who are profoundly shaped by their
own as well as their familyOs history.
RZ: You mention your family's sadness, which has to do with your parents' having survived the Holocaust-like Julian and Paula's father in the book. Looking back, how did that influence your desire to be a writer? Do you see yourself in Paula, who says that she chose singing as a career to make her father happy?
ER: As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist of some
kind. I felt such a strong urge to create, to make something out
of nothing, as I've written in one of my poems, out of air, out of
words. I was in graduate school when I began to write about my
family, and to discover that the material I'd been given to write
about was this legacy, this inherited grief. And yet I had also
been given optimism and joy, a desire to fill the world with
beauty and art. My mother was wonderfully poetic, and her
love of words and images inspired me a great deal. I think that
somehow I wanted to transform my parents' pain into something
that could offer hope and healing. Paula's epiphany was my
own: the profound realization that I had to embrace sorrow as an
essential part of my art.
RZ: Were you worried about your parents' reactions to the book? What did each one tell you when they first read it?
ER: I can't say I was worried about their reactions exactly, because
I knew they would see that I had used my imagination, that I
wasn't exposing my own family and its history in a literal
sense. In other words, they would know that the father in my
novel wasn't modeled after either of them. I usually say that this
book is emotionally, not factually, autobiographical. In fact, my
father's first reactions were editorial! He thought people might
find the book too literary, and therefore it wouldn't find an audi-
ence. My mother was very moved by it. She especially appreci-
ated the language, and reminded me that no doubt my gifts had
come from her. My father tells me that they shared a kind of
amazement at my ability to come up with so much imagined ma-
terial. I'd like to believe that both my mother and my father have
been able to see this book as a tribute to the ways I listened to
them and honored their stories. My mother died two years ago,
and my father says that she had the manuscript by her bed when
she died. He told me she was planning to read it a second time.
RZ: As your father observed, you did indeed write a quiet novel-without a single car chase or scene of sexual acrobatics! And one of the triumphs of The Speed of Light is that you are able to make quiet and tender moments very dramatic and moving. For instance, when Julian lies down beside Sola I was both surprised and touched. Did you share your father's concern about maybe not finding an audience?
ER: Yes! But the truth is, I had to write the only book I could write. I
mean this in the purest sense: that I wanted to write with emo-
tional honesty and that I wanted to write a book I would be truly
proud of. I couldn't contrive to include elements that I thought
might make the book sell without feeling I was diminishing my-
self as a writer. Not that I'm even sure I could write car chases or
sexual acrobatics! And I was fairly certain this book wouldn't
find a publisher at all. That was the amazing discovery I made
while writing it: I didn't care. I wasn't writing the book from a
place of ambition but from a desire to say something I felt to be
true. To do my best and then stand back, let it go. To know that
it's out in the world, that it's being read now in all of these lan-
guages, many of which my parents and their friends speak, that
knowledge fills me up.
RZ: Your main characters rely on routines to cope with the ghosts of their past: Julian needs to have his home in perfect order; Sola needs to clean things beautifully; and Paula needs to train her voice with utmost discipline. Did this aspect of the book come directly out of your observations of your parents?
ER: I believe that all of us develop coping strategies for our suffer-
ing, and I'm sure that on many levels I learned about coping
with ghosts by watching my parents and being extremely self-
conscious. Still, I have to admit that all sorts of details emerged in
this novel without my conscious choice. Often, when I was
writing, I would be in a kind of trance, and so the characters' be-
haviors and thoughts and feelings slowly evolved on their
own. Once I had the material in front of me, I could see how all
three of them had their preferences and quirks. I certainly have
plenty of my own.
RZ: Since much of the book emerging from out of your writer's trance, is there some aspect of it that even today surprises you-that feels as if it came from somewhere beyond your own experience?
ER: I felt I was taking the most risks with the character of Sola, since
she comes from a part of the world I've never even visited,
though I do speak Spanish. I remember when I read about the
massacres in Central America, I felt an intensely visceral famil-
iarity; the testimonies of witnesses reminded me on an emotional
level of the stories I'd heard all my life from Holocaust sur-
vivors. Somehow I was haunted all over again: How did they
find ways to go on living after so much devastation and loss?
Maybe because I'd known only my parents and other survivors
in the aftermath of their trauma, I was determined to follow
someone into that imagined realm that I myself wanted to wit-
ness. Still, Sola's capacity for compassion, either in spite of or be-
cause of her suffering, feels like a gift that came from some
mysterious place, as if it's a lesson for me too.
RZ: The Speed of Light is infused with odors and scents. I recall in particular Julian's writing of Sola: "Between us was a sheet and thin blanket and air that was radiant with her heat and smell of cinnamon and lemons and some indescribable scent, almost like baked corn but not quite that either." I have a feeling that this focus came naturally out of the book's concern with how the past influences our present, since our sense of smell is so intimately tied to remembrance. Would you talk a bit about this?
ER: Again, I have to confess that these details weren't necessarily
chosen consciously, though I do know that my methods involve
a heavy reliance on sensory detail to bring me into intimate con-
tact with a scene and a story. I write by listening, feeling,
smelling, observing, even tasting, at least in my imagination. The
idea that a scent can reawaken a very precise memory is fascinat-
ing to me, and yes, it's another reminder of how our ability to re-
member is what allows us to be in two places at one time. With
Julian, in particular, I felt that despite all his efforts to be numb,
he couldn't ignore the power of his senses and his emotional re-
sponses to the ways they brought him news of the world.
RZ: You and I have been friends for many years, so I know you've spent quite a bit of time outside the United States. An aspect of the book that seems strongly influenced by that is your poetic use of language. Sola notes that it is easier for her to hear the poetry of word combinations in a foreign language. Is that true for you, as well? How did sola being a Spanish speaker and your own experiences overseas influence your desire to write poetically?
ER: Substantial parts of the book were written in other countries, in-
cluding Greece, and I do believe that my love of foreign ac-
cents and melodies is a very strong source of my voice. I grew up
surrounded by foreign languages, and always appreciated my
mother's fanciful English. Sola, in some ways, represents the
non-native speakers I've heard all of my life. I have always had a
sense of pride in and fascination with my parents' abilities to
reinvent themselves in America. Sadly, I feel mostly monolin-
gual myself, and yet I love to imagine how creatively exhilarat-
ing it can be to express oneself in a new tongue.
RZ: As a unique tragedy, the Holocaust is incomparable. To some that means we can never equate the suffering of the Holocaust survivors and their children with those who have been destroyed and brutalized in other places and at other times. Yet Julian and Sola are able to help each other precisely because they equate the suffering the other has experienced with their own. There is no sense that Julian believes that his trauma, or the trauma experienced by his father, is more important that Sola's. I remember him saying, "Her voice(was) thick with grief, longing, things I recognized." Were you at all worried that some people might criticize you for having Julian and Sola find such solidarity and deep friendship in each other? Did it seem like a risky choice?
ER: I was aware that some people might be offended or disturbed by
any implication of parallels being drawn between the Holocaust
and other tragedies, even other genocides. Yet, the point for me
was to express the idea that suffering happens to individuals,
one at a time. I believe that feeling compassion-especially
across cultures-for someone else's pain, is truly a path toward
RZ: Are there new things you discover about what you've written when you do a reading in front of an audience?
ER: Often the surprises come when people quote lines back to
me that I don't remember having written. I really meant what
I said earlier about writing in a trance. I think when I'm work-
ing from a very deep place, the images and words aren't being
developed by way of my intellect but are coming through in
some visceral sense. I can't begin to describe the pleasure of hav-
ing this book returned to me by way of people receiving and
RZ: This was your first published novel. What was the best moment about it-having the book in your hands for the first time, seeing it in bookstores, being able to share it with family and friends? Was there a special moment of quiet happiness?
ER: The moment when I first held the bound galleys, that beautiful
Advanced Reader's Edition, that was when I thought my heart
would burst with joy. I think until that instant I didn't quite be-
lieve any of this was truly happening, that my years of struggle
were actually coming to fruition in this way. And then months
later, when I gave my first reading in a bookstore in Berkeley,
where I live, with so many of my friends there, and my father
too, that was stunning. I said that night that I finally understood
what it means to say my dream has come true.
1. The Speed of Light features three very distinctive characters and their struggles to overcome the difficulties of their past. Which character did you relate to the most, and why?
2. The novel ends with each character on the brink of a new discovery. What do you imagine happens after the end of the book? What do you think the future holds for Sola, Julian, and Paula?
3. Compare and contrast how the presence of color, scent, and sound informs the lives of Julian, Paula, and Sola.
4. In the novel, bearing witness to tragedy implies a responsibility held by both the person telling the story and the person listening. How do you think these responsibilities differ? Do you agree with Sola that each role is important in the healing process? Do you think this idea is applicable to the world today?
5. Did any of the characters or scenes from The Speed of Light stay with you after you finished reading the book? If so, which ones and why?
6. The bonds of family are a central theme in the novel-both the secrets and silences that arise, as well as the close relationships formed between parent and child, brother and sister. Are there any feelings in the book that resonate with your own family experiences? Do you think this kind of complexity is common to the American family today?
7. During the course of the novel, each character experiences a significant change and ends up in quite a different place than he or she expected. Did you, as a reader, find that the book altered any of your perceptions or experiences in the world around you? If so, discuss these changes and the feelings they inspired.