Brooklyn Bookbeat: Park Sloper’s new novel channels 19th century female astronomer

Brooklyn-based author Amy Brill wrote her first story, “The Lost Dog,” when she was in first grade. She has come a long way since then: on April 18, Brill will be launching her debut novel, “The Movement of Stars,” which has already received widespread praise.

Inspired by the story of Maria Mitchell, America’s first professional female astronomer, Brill’s book takes place in 1840s Nantucket and tells the story of amateur astronomer Hannah Price. In search of a comet, Price, who is a Quaker, develops an unexpected relationship with a black sailor. Investigating themes of race- and gender-based marginalization, Brill develops complex characters whose emotional journeys will captivate readers.

Brill will appear at Community Bookstore in Park Slope on Thursday, April 18th, for a book launch party. In celebration of the book’s release, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author. Brill reveals to us a few of the (many) Brooklyn writers who have inspired her, and offers two book recommendations – both by Brooklyn authors.

 

How did you become fixated on Mitchell’s story?

I took a daytrip to Nantucket in 1996 and found out about her by chance. I was intrigued by the idea of a “girl astronomer”—what did that even mean? The more I found out about her life and times, the more interested I became. I think I was most compelled by Mitchell’s dedication to exploring the night skies, in spite of the slim chance she had of actually discovering anything new, and by her passion for equal education for women and men. She was not interested in taking a back seat to men when she had equal if not greater aptitude.

 

Did you spend much time doing background research for this novel?

I think it’s safe to say that I spent too much time doing background research! I thought at first that I had to stick to the facts of Mitchell’s life, and I became a bit obsessed with getting every detail right—the time, the place, what people thought and said and wore and believed and on and on. I took it to an extreme, but when I realized that I had to invent the story I wanted to tell in order for the novel to succeed, the research receded into its rightful place – the background – and the characters came to life.

 

Was it difficult to separate your story from the (true) story that inspired you?

I do occasionally confuse something my character does with something from Maria Mitchell’s real life, or vice-versa, but I took good notes throughout the process. I think it’s safe to say that the book was inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, and by the circumstances of her life, as well as informed by her pioneering spirit—but it’s most definitely not about her.

 

Which Brooklyn-based writers have most heavily influenced your work?

My influences are pretty far-flung. I can say for certain that Emily Barton’s novels, especially “Brookland,” inspired me to keep writing a serious historical novel about a woman in science. And Margaret Wise Brown was born in Greenpoint. She wrote both my favorite children’s books (“The Color Kittens” and “Pussy Willow”), so she’s definitely on my list. And Walt Whitman. Definitely Walt Whitman.

 

What does your typical day of writing entail?

I don’t have a typical day any more. I have two kids under five, and with the novel coming out, every day is different from the next. One day it’s revising a short story that’s about to be published, answering emails, and updating my web site; the next day it’s answering interview questions, writing an essay or a guest blog post, and making aliens out of paper and pipe cleaners. Eventually I hope to get back to a more regular writing routine, which involves sitting down in the chair and writing until the day is done. The only constant is coffee. Lots of coffee.

 

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Leigh Newman’s great memoir, “Still Points North”, and Jennifer Cody Epstein’s novel, “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.” Two Brooklynites!

What are you working on now?

Trying to get my 17-month old to sleep later than 6:30 a.m. And, when I have time, I’m working on a new short story. I find myself drawn to stories these days. I guess spending fifteen years on one book has made me hungry for a shorter form. But I’m still really slow.

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The April 18 event will begin at 7 p.m. Community Bookstore is located at 143 Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

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