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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Sandra Newman on The Heavens

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 145

A young woman falls asleep in the 21st century and slowly finds herself slipping into 16th-century England, where she falls in love with an obscure young poet named Will.

Sandra Newman’s new novel The Heavens crosses genres. You could call it historical fiction, with its meticulously accurate 16th-century details. You could call it science fiction for its use of time travel and parallel worlds. It’s also a really good, sexy romance novel about Emilia Bassano, the woman who some believe was the inspiration for half of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Sandra Newman joined us recently to talk about what inspired this novel and what it tells us about love, mental illness, and the past, present, and future. Newman is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Sandra Newman on “The Heavens”

Sandra Newman is the author of four novels, including The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star. Her latest, The Heavens, was published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, in 2019.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 26, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “If I Should Despair, I Should Grow Mad” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Special thanks to Derek Rusinek and James Walsh at Threshold Recording Studios NYC in Manhattan and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California for their technical help.

Previous: Kathryn Harkup on Death by Shakespeare | Next: Jonathan Bate on the Classics and Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Read, search, and download Shakespeare’s Sonnets with The Folger Shakespeare

The Early Years of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (16th and 17th centuries)
Listen to our interview with scholar Jane Kingsley-Smith about the composition and publication of the Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
Peek into our collection and see the title and dedicatory pages from Emilia Lanier’s (née Bassano) book of poems, Salue Deus Rex Judaeorum


MICHAEL WITMORE: A young woman falls asleep and finds herself in 16th-century England, falling in love with an obscure young poet named Will. The affair goes on for quite a while. And in this story it turns out… It’s not a dream.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Sandra Newman’s novel The Heavens crosses a lot of genres. You could call it historical fiction, with its meticulously accurate 16th-century details. You could call it science fiction for its use of time travel and parallel worlds. It’s also a really good, sexy romance novel about Emilia Bassano, the woman who—many think—was the inspiration for half of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Whatever you call this book, it’s engrossing, it’s beautifully written, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. We had Sandra Newman in our studio in Manhattan recently to talk about what inspired this novel and what it might have to tell us about love, about mental illness, and about the past, the present, and maybe the future.

Just a note before we start: we recorded this podcast during the very early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States—a few hours before New York City locked down, in fact. That will be clear from the conversation. Also, if you hear anything in our audio quality that’s less than what you’ve come to expect from us, we hope you’ll understand, under the circumstances.

We call this podcast If I Should Despair, I Should Grow Mad. Sandra Newman is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, one of the many things that you do well in this novel is the time travel element, and it’s something we’re all probably wishing we could do right about now. So if we could, I’d love you to read a passage in which your protagonist, Kate, goes to sleep and then finds herself transported to Elizabethan England.

SANDRA NEWMAN: Okay. So this is the beginning of Chapter 10.

“When it came again, she didn’t wake in bed. She woke in the middle of a gesture, in the middle of a facial expression, in the middle of dinner. A dozen other people were seated at the table, in the nonsense clothes of dreams: stout velvet sleeves and lacy cuffs, gilt buttons and little plumed hats. All were gesturing, talking, spearing meat on their knives.

“That multifarious motion, resuming as she woke, was dizzying. She had the sense of falling into it and continuing to fall as she understood where she was. It was Surrey, her cousin Andrea Bassano’s house, his new-built house of brick. He was there at the head of the table, a man with the weather-beaten, paunchy looks of a horn player and the important manner of a householder who can afford to feed ten guests.

“The guests today were all Londoners driven from town by fear of plague. Old Lupo, the viol player, and his hunchbacked granddaughter, Anne. A Portuguese mercer and his teenaged wife. Three fiddlers from the London Waits, and across from Emilia, two actors of Lord Strange’s Men, turned vagrant by the closure of the theaters. All had an air of pleasurable shipwreck. They’d washed up on this quiet, irrelevant shore of the ocean London and were pleased with each other and with their imperiled peace. Pleased with their overcooked meat. An airy hall, open to the rafters, a hearth with a fire. An orange cat stalking in the rushes. Two mullioned windows with flaws in the panes that distorted the view of branches outside, all black from rain and hung with glistening raindrops.”

BOGAEV: It’s so seamless; this immersion, the slow, falling into this warm bath of the past. And that scene continues, by the way, and in a bit we learn that there are two Wills at that dinner party. One of them—they’re both actors—one is kind of a comic guy… I’m imagining, I’m assuming, Will Kempe. And the other one is “Sad Will,” as you call him in the book—Will Shakespeare. What got you on this story? Was it dreams? Was it time travel? Was it Shakespeare’s girlfriend? What?

NEWMAN: Well, it did… it started from Shakespeare’s girlfriend, in a sense. My husband and I have a sort of a game we play where we come up with ideas for bestselling novels or for television shows.

BOGAEV: That’s wonderful.

NEWMAN: And his star idea is an idea for a television show which is an improv troupe that solves crimes.

BOGAEV: I can just hear the elevator pitch.

NEWMAN: My idea was basically Outlander, but Shakespeare. So it’s a woman from the present day who goes back in time, and she is the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I thought that it was just a joke. It was just meant to be like a really great idea for a bestselling novel that I would never write, because it’s not the sort of novel that I write.

But then it kind of actually planted a seed in my husband’s brain before mine. He could see it as a novel that I could write; a completely different kind of novel from what we started with. He started to pester me, and then I began to think about it, and it grew and morphed and turned into The Heavens.

BOGAEV: Okay, a couple juicy things there. I’m a huge Outlander fan, so I’m assuming you are too. It’s such a wonderful bodice ripper.

NEWMAN: Yeah, it is. And the book is actually sillier and weirder than you would ever imagine, I think.

BOGAEV: Then the other thing that occurred to me while you were talking; so why did your husband think this was such a great idea?

NEWMAN: You know, I think it was coming off of the last book that I wrote, called The Country of Ice Cream Star, was written in a sort of invented patois, a future world, and it’s a world where America and English has changed.

The whole book is written in the first person, from the point of view of someone who speaks a different kind of English. That book was such a joy to write. and it was very hard for me to go back to writing in normal English. I guess he had the insight to see that the ability to channel some Elizabethan English would help me.

BOGAEV: Wow. What a good partner. Well… all right, so you got thinking about this and decided, “Oh, this might actually work.” Did you start then with this idea that readers would immediately latch onto the name Emilia Bassano and know who you were talking about?

NEWMAN: No, I didn’t. In fact, I’ve been really surprised by how many people who are passionate readers don’t even know that there is a “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets, have no idea of the concept of the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, and the story that we imagine or see in the sonnets. So people are mostly coming to it completely fresh, and they have no idea what they’re getting into.

BOGAEV: And what kind of research did you do to get inside the head of Bassano?

NEWMAN: Because I luckily live in Manhattan and can go to the New York Public Library, I believe that I have read every word that has ever been written about Emilia Bassano. You know, she rivals Shakespeare for her obscurity, but of course, she’s a much less studied figure.

The way she came to be better known was from the book written by a guy called A.L. Rowse, who decided, kind of unilaterally, that she must have written Shakespeare’s plays. Which is kind of wonderful… I think that it suffers a bit from completely not being true, but it’s this wonderful pet project of his. It has all these beautiful, historical details that he really, really, really dug.

BOGAEV: She’s known as one of perhaps the earliest proto-feminist poets.

NEWMAN: Yes, although the Emilia Bassano that I’m writing about is only 21, and she would live another 20 years before her book was published.

It’s actually on the face of it unlikely that [Bassano and Shakespeare] never met, because he worked with members of her family and she was a courtier who was at court physically during a time when Shakespeare’s company was playing at court a lot of the time. So it seems incredibly—and they lived in the same neighborhood for a while. So it seems incredibly unlikely that they would not have met, and probably have known each other at least a little bit.

BOGAEV: And that is what gives you fertile ground for a lot of your book.


BOGAEV: You know, we’ve recently done a series of interviews with scholars taking a really deep dive into the sonnets, and she upends a lot of the conventional wisdom. For example, she disagrees with this idea that there are sonnets to a Fair Youth and sonnets to a Dark Lady. So I’m just wondering, you know, clearly you’re writing fiction; it’s okay, you can make stuff up. But how much do you tear your hair out about something like this, like someone… hearing new information that comes out that might throw a lot of your suppositions into question?

NEWMAN: I mean, ultimately, the story gets thrown away by scholars and then it’s forgotten. Then my version of it becomes an innovative version, instead of something that’s based on other people’s ideas, in retrospect. But yeah, I don’t think it’s a problem. I do think it’s sort of sad to lose that whole salacious story of the love triangle and the bisexuality that we read into it. It’s such a beautiful, imaginative journey that the reader takes through the sonnets when we read them as a narrative.

BOGAEV: So in your heart of hearts, does it annoy you that…

NEWMAN: The truth is often sad. No, it doesn’t really. The truth can be annoying too. It doesn’t really annoy me. That particular thing is really the least of the realities that annoy me.

BOGAEV: Okay, we’ve talked about Emilia Bassano. What about your Shakespeare? What did you draw on for your depiction of William Shakespeare?

NEWMAN: Mostly the same biographies that everyone else reads. So, now, I’m a great fan of Stephen Greenblatt. I really like James Shapiro’s books as well. And as a novelist, of course, I’m trying to… I just need to know what is solid. Like, where is the solid ground from which I can imagine.

BOGAEV: But would you be able to articulate who was your Shakespeare? What were the solid facts of Shakespeare’s life that you were building on or your conception of him?

NEWMAN: My conception of him was very much as a writer. One of the things that I find most sympathetic about Shakespeare is that he was somebody who wrote for money and had to write for money and struggled for quite a while, as far as we know. He seems to have struggled for quite a while, especially with the closure of the theaters early in his career. So I see him that way. I feel that, because I’m also a struggling writer who writes for money, who, as well as writing for money, writes for other reasons and has some sort of artistic ambitions.

Shakespeare as we know, or as he tells us, was preoccupied by posterity and by the hope that his work would survive. So I think his writerly vanity is part of what I wanted to bring across: his concern with himself, how he’s seen as a writer. I think all of that, it really humanizes him, and it’s something that a lot of people can identify with now. The necessity of being a public person in order to survive, the necessity—his necessity of getting along with patrons, with anybody who might help him out. It’s not always a flattering version, but there’s something inevitably loveable about someone who is that intelligent in any case.

BOGAEV: And struggling.

NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: Absolutely, yeah. He comes across as very real and rooted in a real world. And part of that is that in the scenes with Shakespeare, you do make a lot of allusions to actual elements of his life or of his plays or his sonnets. I also wondered, did you storyboard that out for yourself so that you would seed the novel with Shakespeare facts, or did they just come organically as you’re writing?

NEWMAN: I do a lot of outlining. So I start with one outline, and then I outline each chapter, and then sometimes I outline the scenes in the chapter. Eventually the outline becomes so fat and unwieldy that I have to make an outline of the outline, and so on and so forth. So that does happen.

Seeding the research, it’s a really interesting process, because sometimes a scene will be born from just a little piece of research. I don’t know. For instance, in this book there’s a song, Tom o’ Bedlam, which recurs, and the people are always singing it. It’s a very popular song of the time, in reality. But here it becomes a motif around which certain things are structured and it’s thematic. So that kind of, you know… you find something that you think is beautiful and evocative, and then you structure some of the plot around that. And here, Shakespeare—it’s actually in the year of his life where we find him. I found it completely unclear how much of his work he had already written, because it’s just before his success.

BOGAEV: You know, you’ve done clearly so much research. There must have been things that you couldn’t fit in the book. That’s heartbreaking that you couldn’t wedge in there.

NEWMAN: Oh, there’s so much. I mean, there’s a little tidbit… this is actually from a little before this time, from the court of Henry VIII, where there’s a complaint by the Lord Chamberlain that the courtiers kept stealing the king’s furniture. And I thought that’s so indicative of the way people were really undisciplined, while also living these extremely formal lives in some ways.

BOGAEV: They just carted off? What?

NEWMAN: Yeah. I guess when they left, they just took it with them to their own country homes. Which is kind of wonderful. You know, you can’t help rooting for them, but…

BOGAEV: So we’ve been talking a lot about the time travel, but your story actually begins in kind of a 21st-century New York. Only the story begins in a New York that is itself, but just like a couple shades—quite a few shades better. We have a woman president who is Asian and outdoor advertising is strictly regulated. This is just like a dream of New York. And that’s where your protagonist, Kate, lives. She of course… she dreams. She’s Shakespeare’s Dark Lady or she travels back in time.

NEWMAN: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: I mean, you deal with that tension throughout the whole book. Which is it? But first, tell me about this world that you imagine. What was your inspiration for it?

NEWMAN: It comes from two things. There was one aspect of it which was inspired by the inauguration of Obama. I think it’s easy to forget how transformational that felt when it happened; that we were really going to have a black President. And being in Manhattan, you know, we went out to the streets and went to Union Square, and there’s this gigantic, impromptu celebration, and people singing and chanting. So that was… it felt like this utopian moment. So there’s that.

Also, actually, when I was 18, I moved to the United Kingdom and lived there for 18 years, and then came back to the United States. And either because I’m just this sort of person or because it genuinely was a better and more human society, I always felt that English society was just a little better. Not 50 percent better, but maybe two percent or five percent better. It was just a little bit safer. At that time, there was a much more generous welfare system, so you didn’t have to worry that much about losing your job. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was enough of a difference that it changed every little part of life just a little bit. I sort of wanted to convey that feeling that little differences could make the world feel so much more like a garden and less like a task.

BOGAEV: Oh, and you really do that. I was reading and thinking, “Oh, this is like Iceland.” A woman president and no ugly billboards. That would be a big change. It’s a small, one law, and a big change.

NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: One of the other really fascinating things about your book and the time travel element is, like in all time travel, there’s a butterfly effect. Every time Kate either imagines she goes back in time or does go back in time, it changes the world a bit that she returns to. So I would think that would have been a real challenge for you, because as a reader, we kind of—your world has to be very real to us and very specific in order that we keep up with these changes, as she travels back and forth.

NEWMAN: Yes, and it took a few revisions before it really worked, because the world actually was relatively easy. Changing the world gradually, because you just have to seed in little notes that people will get are different.

BOGAEV: Well—and now going back to Shakespearean time—Kate and Shakespeare, they have long conversations. They have a relationship. It’s really fun as a Shakespeare geek to read all of this. There is the Shakespeare in Love quality to some of the scenes. In fact, why don’t you read the passage on page 146? That’s a good one.

NEWMAN: Okay, so this is, actually Emilia is now… I’ll just very, very briefly contextualize this. Emilia has come downstairs in the middle of the night and found Shakespeare sitting in front of the fire, and he tells her that he’s writing. Since he doesn’t have any writing implement, she questions him on this and he says that he can just write in his head.

“’And what dost thou write?’

’What may be a play, if it go well. I have only a few fair lines.’

‘Fair lines and few,’ she said politely. ’Twould be a shame, then, didst thou not speak them.’ He paused. She could see he was thinking. Perhaps he was editing his new-made lines. In that pause, she was Kate, who didn’t see why he mattered. It was pleasant by the fire and the spiced wine was pleasant, but ultimately just a waste of time. Like the ride to Cowdray, like all these days. He was nothing, after all: a minor poet. Just a man.

Then he collected himself and said, ‘It is a scene of the sad King Richard. He receiveth ill tidings of his wars, such that he must despair of his throne. His officers bespeak him courage, but the king is stubborn in desponding. Now he speaks: ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings; how some have been deposed, some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed. Some poison’d by their wives: all murder’d. For, within the hollow crown that rounds the temples of a king, keeps Death his court.’

He spoke the lines with a rich and mournful timbre of a tragic actor. It went on a little while, and coursed and grew and left a hole when he fell silent. Then Emilia was chilled. Wrong-footed. It was as if she had heard the words before, in a time of great happiness that was now lost. It was fey. It was familiar. It was like nothing else.”

BOGAEV: I love that ending. It’s as if she had heard the words before. You have all of these worlds kind of happening at once in her mind, all of these different times.

NEWMAN: Thanks. Thank you.

BOGAEV: And you seem to really know your 16th-century poetry. Emilia is often walking around at night and phrases from Thomas Wyatt poems keep popping into her head.

NEWMAN: Yeah, I’ve always read it:

“They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.”

BOGAEV: Did you just recite that from memory?

NEWMAN: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, those two lines. I’m sure like now everybody will be able to recite them from memory for the rest of their lives, because they’re so catchy. It’s really…

BOGAEV: Is this what you read at night?

NEWMAN: Sometimes, yeah. I’ve always read it—well, always, since I was 19 or so. But yeah, I’ve always read it, and there’s something so potently beautiful about 16th, early 17th-century literature in English. It’s interesting. How is that possible? How is it possible for everyone at a particular time to have been able to produce something that is beautiful to us hundreds of years later? It’s really strange, actually.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s amazing. I was also thinking, reading your book, that, “Oh, a lot of writers read literature from the past because it’s too hard—you can’t bear to read your competition.”

NEWMAN: [LAUGH] Yeah. Yeah, that’s really true. I have entire periods when I just can’t read any book that’s been published in my lifetime. Because, generally, if they’re not good, then you’re irritated that they had any success, and if they are good, then you’re irritated because you—well, not irritated—you become depressed because you begin to think that all of your work will never be as good as that. And you have to go back to your work and compare it to the book that you’re reading. Generally it just turns into a thing about your ego, instead of a thing about the book.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s hell.

NEWMAN: It’s awful.

BOGAEV: And reading is probably the thing you love the most.

NEWMAN: Yeah, and it’s so stupid. But when it has you in its grips, it’s really difficult to get rid of it.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s really true. Well, in the scenes when Shakespeare and Emilia are getting close, were you working with the sonnets right in front of you? Because a lot of the language is worked into those scenes from actual sonnets.
NEWMAN: Yeah, not right in front of me, but I read the sonnets quite a lot during that period, and I would refer back to them.

BOGAEV: Do you have any favorite lines that you got in there that you remember?

NEWMAN: Oh, that ended up in there? I have no… Yeah, I don’t really remember. In fact, I think my favorite sonnets I didn’t use as much. I’ve always been a sort of a, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds impediment,” person, which didn’t really go with… I mean, it’s clearly not one of the Dark Lady sonnets and it’s not as… it didn’t work. I mean, that’s another thing that I wanted to work in, but did not—is that poem.

BOGAEV: What elements or motifs from the plays—from Shakespeare’s plays either did you borrow, or were there ones that particularly inspired you? Since you were swimming in this soup of Shakespeare when you were writing this.

NEWMAN: Huh. I’m just trying to remember. I mean, I tried to, it actually—I mean, it turned into an occasion in which I read all of the plays that I had not read before, or watched them, which was interesting. So actually I ended up spending a lot of time with the more obscure history plays.

BOGAEV: It’s funny, because I was reading along, and I’m thinking, “Oh, this is so much like all of the comedies, with twinning and disguises and mistaken identity.” And of course, we have Kate, is one person in one world and goes back and is another. People kind of shift as she affects history and their identities kind of shape shift.

NEWMAN: Mm. Yeah, and there are a lot of masks in the book, which—I mean—it is a feature of Elizabethan life, which I found fascinating, and which you don’t really see represented very much; is that people actually wore masks partly to protect their skin from the sun, partly to disguise themselves when they were up to no good. I thought that was sort of interesting, and it does go—of course, there are the masks in Romeo and Juliet and some of Shakespeare’s other plays.

In my book, for Kate, the entire persona of Emilia—Emilia’s body is a sort of a mask. She lives in that mask, but then when she wakes up as Kate, as herself in a world that’s completely altered; her own body—her own self, has turned into a bit of a mask, because she’s not the same person. She’s not the person everyone thinks she is because the Kate that they know grew up in the same world that they grew up in. And she is a different Kate from a different time.

And I think there’s a lot of that in Shakespeare; of identity being fluid and people being taken for people who they are not, and having to reconcile that discrepancy. Or posing as people they are not and cross-dressing and inhabiting different personas.

BOGAEV: Yes. Appearances are deceiving. And in your book, everything is this moving target. On top of that, there’s always that elephant in the room; is Kate a time traveler or is she mentally ill? And that’s what her boyfriend, Ben, starts suspecting: that she’s mentally ill. And it’s a really slow burn.

For instance, he notices Kate either doesn’t remember things that happened or thinks things happened in history that didn’t. How did you go about creating that effect or that progression?

NEWMAN: It sort of evolved naturally. And it was difficult for me, because I sometimes… In some narratives, I find it actually annoying when you have that motif of the character who has had a supernatural experience and everyone thinks they’re crazy. I was really concerned to make it feel real, to make her feel like she could really be genuinely seen as crazy, for lack of a better word.

I think in my terms, she definitely did have the real experience of going back in time to the 16th century, and the world does change. That’s all the reality of the book; that she does actually change the world.

But from the point of view of the other characters who she’s interacting with in the present day, they’re not wrong. She really does have the symptoms of a serious mental illness or a serious neurological disorder. So when she eventually is diagnosed with schizophrenia and ends up being treated for it, it makes sense. She really is. She just isn’t from that timeline. So for her, her reality is consistent and she’s completely sane, and for them, it’s completely correct that she’s mentally ill.

BOGAEV: Oh, I see, because I was going to ask you what was interesting to you about creating this tension between fact and fiction, and reality and time travel, and sanity and insanity. But from what you’re saying, your book is about time travel. But of course, people misconstrue it.

NEWMAN: Yeah. I mean, of course it’s impossible what she… what has happened to her is impossible. It’s not. So they’re construing it the best they can within the reality that they live in, and she’s construing everything within the reality that she lives in. I guess the book allows for the idea that there are different realities that overlap, and when they overlap, you get problems.

BOGAEV: Yeah. That’s a really interesting observation, especially to make right now. In fact, reading your book in this moment in time brings up these eerie echoes during this pandemic. I mean, this feeling that if you miss just one day of news or even a couple of hours or a week, like Jared Leto, you reemerge into this completely different world.

NEWMAN: Yes, definitely. It’s really strange when you write a book that becomes prescient afterwards.

BOGAEV: Oh, sounds big.

NEWMAN: It feels as if I saw this coming, which I certainly consciously didn’t. But even things like, you know, when she meets Shakespeare, everybody has left London because of the plague. And now, you know, opening it up to read that now, half of my friends have left Manhattan because of the plague.

It’s very strange, and I think it happens to a lot of writers. And that… I don’t think it’s special, but it’s a really peculiar experience and does make you wonder if all of us, when we imagine things, if we’re not projecting this kind of implicit—these suspicions that we have about what is going to happen in real life.

BOGAEV: Right. And just general anxiety. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff like that; like the idea that each individual can have such a vast significance, as Kate does. Just one person going back in history, changing one tiny little thing, has this butterfly effect and can cause people to live or die. And that’s what we’re seeing. You know, one decision to go to Disneyland or a conference…

NEWMAN: Oh, yeah.

BOGAEV: You pass an epidemic onto a whole community.

NEWMAN: Oh, absolutely. And it’s so interesting. Like, I find as well that I can’t help feeling responsible for everything that’s gone wrong. As if I could have just gone to one more protest march and everything would have been fine, or I could have done a bit more volunteer work, or somehow been a less selfish, more socially-engaged person, and that would have made all the difference to everything that has happened. It’s kind of, for me anyway… but I’m aware consciously, you know. I know intellectually it makes no sense and I actually don’t have that much power and I’m just not that important. But I can’t help feeling guilty.

BOGAEV: That’s right. And that is this really terrible tension, because it’s like your book, that kind of delusion of grandeur is a definition of insanity. But at the same time, it’s kind of our reality.

NEWMAN: Yeah, and you want to believe there’s still time, and I can still make the difference. But actually it’s one of the painful things about activism. I’ve known a lot of activists in my life, and it’s… I remember one of them expressed to me, like, the really difficult thing about activism is that you’re constantly faced with the reality of how incredibly little you can do, and you still just go out and do it every day. I have so much respect for those people.

BOGAEV: Well, so were those the things that you were thinking when you did start writing this book years ago? Because obviously you weren’t, as you say—how could you know this is where we’d be now? You know, what did you want your readers to walk away with from this book originally?

NEWMAN: That’s definitely one of the themes. I think that in the book, there’s a lot about climate change, very subtly, and generally the more negative manifestations of modernity and capitalism that we find around us now. There’s a lot of that.

As well, just that feeling of how we are and aren’t responsible for history; how history creates us, and we create history, and this kind of mutual cycle. And it’s very hard to get behind that and change how you affect history, so that history will affect you in a good way, instead of always being behind the eight ball and being affected by history. Then often even making things worse with the choices one is forced or nearly forced to make.

BOGAEV: Yeah, that’s true. You know, that dichotomy of, we do have some control, even though we have no control.

NEWMAN: Yes. I guess the book ultimately is… I mean, the book actually ends in a happy place, but it’s a strangely dark happy place. There’s this feeling in the book that there is hope, but hope is not always that comfortable a thing.

BOGAEV: Sandra, well, thanks for giving us some measure of hope in this conversation. I wish you safety and health, and your family.

NEWMAN: Oh, you too. You too.

BOGAEV: Take care in New York.

NEWMAN: And thank you for having me on.

BOGAEV: Thank you.


WITMORE: Sandra Newman is the author of four novels including The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done; Cake; and The Country of Ice Cream Star. Her latest, The Heavens was published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, in 2019. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “If I Should Despair, I Should Grow Mad,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.

We want to extend an extra special thanks to Derek Rusinek and James Walsh at Threshold Recording Studios NYC in Manhattan and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. While we were planning this interview, Los Angeles and then New York were ordered to lock down, forcing us to reschedule multiple times and bend over backwards in multiple, various other ways. Derek, James, and Andrew not only had to be flexible when it came to timing and all the technological challenges of recording this interview. They also remained focused on everything needed to keep Barbara and Sandra healthy and safe. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts for their work on this podcast.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.