When Elizabeth Rosner was growing up near Schenectady New York, a company town dominated by the General Electric Corporation, she couldn’t wait to leave. Her parents, who were Holocaust survivors, had moved there after the end of the war and did not mind the provincial atmosphere. But Rosner found the town confining.
When Rosner was 16, she won a scholarship to study in the Philippines. “I got as far away from home as I could without leaving the planet,” she likes to say. She never really went back. She graduated from Stanford and moved to Berkeley in 1986.
See Elizabeth Rosner at Pegasus bookstore, 1855 Solano Ave., tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Rosner’s first two highly acclaimed, award-winning novels, The Speed of Light and Blue Nude, were set in Northern California. She didn’t think she had anything to say about Schenectady.
That changed when she heard a lecture by James D. Houston, the late author who wrote Snow Mountain Passage and Farewell to Manzanar.
“He was talking about place and the importance of place and it was like I almost felt it in my body, this sudden realization that I hadn’t looked at what my birthplace meant to me and had never really taken it seriously,” said Rosner.
The result is Electric City, a lyrical, moving, coming-of-age love story set against the historical backdrop of Schenectady. The book touches on the glory days of the town it was known as “the city that lights the world.” It is about technology, its perils and promise, and what was lost.
Rosner will be speaking about Electric City at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at Pegasus Books on Solano Ave. She will also be at Books Inc on Fourth Street on Nov. 17 and elsewhere.
Berkeleyside caught up with Rosner to ask her about her novel, which was just published by Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press.
Berkeleyside: You dedicate this book to your father, Carl Rosner, “and all the other wizards of Schenectady.” Growing up, were you aware of the importance and impact of General Electric on your town and the world? Was it something that you talked about around the dinner table? Did it feel like a company town? What made you want to write about it so many years later?
Rosner: I remember having a strong sense that nearly everyone’s father seemed to be employed by GE, and that there were a great many scientists living in my neighborhood. Somehow I imagined a kind of implied connection among the residents of the city, although at the same time I was aware of feeling quite “different” from my peers, most of whom came from families who had lived in America for many generations.
Schenectady used to be a place I wanted to get far away from, to be perfectly honest. I’ve lived in California for 36 years now, and Berkeley has most definitely become my adopted home. After completing and publishing my first two novels (which were both set primarily in Northern California), I realized it was finally time to write about where I grew up, to look back at it from all this distance. I was quite amazed to discover its fascinating and complicated history, with much more nuance and significance than I’d ever fully recognized.
Berkeleyside: Your parents were Holocaust survivors. In Electric City, Sophie is also the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She becomes friends with Henry Van Curler, the son of long-time executives of “The Company,” and a descendant of the Dutch who settled the area. She is also friends with Martin Longboat, a Mohawk Indian. I was fascinated that the three main characters came from such different backgrounds and their friendship shattered class and economic boundaries. Why did you choose these characters?
Rosner: Exactly as you say, I wanted to explore their intersecting cultural lineages – much like the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers that characterize the geography of the area. Sophie is most closely reflective of my own personal background (though she is 10 years old than I am); you could say that I invented Henry and Martin because they were people I wish I could have known in real life. The intimate relationships among the three of them help me tell a bigger story about how the place we come from can shape who we are, how we love, and where we can create a path toward the future.
Berkeleyside: Another prominent character is Charles P. Steinmetz, a short and misshapen but brilliant scientist whose work revolutionized AC circuit theory. What are the challenges in basing a character on a real-life person? Do you feel you must be true to his experiences?
A certain amount of very compelling historical information about Steinmetz gave me exciting seeds to work with, but I was happy and relieved to liberate myself from the constraints of those “facts” in order to develop him as my own fictionalized character. As a novelist rather than a historian, I was inspired to use my imaginative resources as much or more than documented material. And yet it was always thrilling to see photographs of him – to feel sometimes that he was looking straight through the camera and into my eyes.
Berkeleyside: The book looks at technology as both good and bad: the scientists in Electric City have brought electricity into people’s homes but they have also harnessed it for war. Were you aware when writing of the parallels between then and now? The Bay Area is leading the way in technological developments that are revolutionizing society. Yet there has been a negative impact to that: more traffic, wealthy techies overtaking neighborhoods and driving up rents, artists and musicians priced out.
Rosner: Yes, the implied parallels between the past and the present are in the book quite deliberately. I find it amazing (and disturbing) how often we fail to learn from our own mistakes. The potential for scientific innovation to destroy as well as to redeem has always fascinated me, from my early childhood up to this very moment. My optimistic tendencies teeter back and forth! I keep wanting our “better nature” to win out. And yet I wonder….
Berkeleyside: In addition to Electric City, you have a new book of poetry, Gravity, which has also just been published. How does poetry inform your prose and visa versa?
Rosner: After many years writing prose, when I began writing poetry I felt like a new apprentice – in a good way – to the power of individual words and images. Poetry also taught me to trust more deeply in emotional honesty. Many people say that my fiction is very lyrical, and that my prose is very narrative. I often say that there is a blurry line between the two forms, and in my view this is a good thing! GRAVITY is a poetry collection but it’s also a memoir, an autobiographical companion to my novels. It was composed over a period of more than 20 years, during which time all three of my novels have been written. There are many “conversations” taking place among the four books.
Berkeleyside: Counterpoint Press, based in Berkeley, is your publisher. You have also published with large New York publishing houses. Are the experiences different? What can you get at a smaller press that you might not get at a larger one?
Rosner: It was in many ways a privilege to be published by the “major” houses, and I’m very glad to have had those experiences – they were exciting and complex. Given the overwhelming scale of that world, though, I consider it much more gratifying now to be working with Counterpoint Press. It feels more like a genuinely collaborative relationship, where I’m treated as an individual author with a particular artistic vision. There is a genuine atmosphere of support and mutual respect that we share. And I’m especially grateful to be able to work with my talented editor Dan Smetanka – who by lucky chance has been my editor for all three of my novels.
Berkeleyside: What are your favorite five spots in Berkeley?
Rosner: Tilden Park. Indian Rock. The Gourmet Ghetto. Thursday and Saturday Farmer’s Markets. And my own astonishingly beautiful neighborhood of Thousand Oaks.
Rosner will be a Pegasus on Solano at 7:30 p.m. on Oct 21; at Books Inc in Palo Alto on Oct 22; Books, Inc. on Fourth St. in Berkeley on Nov. 17th, and many more. Look here for a listing of her appearances.
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