The Stargazer's Sister

Patience, Persistence Yield The Stargazer’s Sister
An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

March 2016

Eighteen years ago, Carrie Brown was in the car driving her kids to school when she heard an intriguing snippet on the radio about Caroline Herschel, the first female astronomer to discover a comet, and her brother William, a noted astronomer and composer. 

The Stargazer’s Sister
by Carrie Brown

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“I thought it was interesting for a female astronomer to be recognized in that period (Herschel lived from 1750 to 1848). I began to do the research,” said Brown.

Eighteen years later, Brown’s book hit bookstores.

“It seemed to take me that long.  I guess I am just stubborn. I fell in love with Caroline’s life. I was intrigued by Caroline, by the artistic challenge of trying to imagine what that hidden life — her emotional and psychological experience, the life not so readily revealed — was really like,” said Brown.
In the interim, she wrote a collection of short stories and six other novels, but she never abandoned the idea of a book about Herschel’s life and the special bond she shared with her brother.

“You need time to write a persuasive historical novel.”

“You need time to write a persuasive historical novel. I didn’t have sufficient information to tell it and kept giving up in frustration. Some instinct told me that I needed an elaborate advice to pull them out of the shadows of time,” said Brown.

She continued her research, drawing on Caroline Hershel’s detailed journals of the fabric of day to day life, which included information on the weather, health, purchases, and visitors. Brown also worked hard to educate herself about the historical period and the scientific developments of the day.

“I exhausted all the bad ideas I had for telling the story,” said Brown. She experimented with telling the story from the perspective of a modern day great niece, from William’s point of view and from the point of view of a fictional friend of William.

“I settled on the simplest, most straightforward approach . . .”

“I settled on the simplest, most straightforward approach, Caroline’s voice from cradle to grave. The shape of a human life has an organic integrity. It is very beautiful,” said Brown.

The result is a deeply intimate look at the physical and emotional challenges Caroline, known as Lina, faces as she leaves home and overcomes her fear and physical limitations to make astronomical history.
“Caroline and William’s personal papers were important in helping me hear their voices. If the book gives a sense of being present in her body it is because she gave us those details in her journals,” said Brown. 

The novel stays focused on the story of the brother and sister, the herculean task of developing a forty foot telescope, and the ensuing astronomical discoveries.

“It was tempting as a novelist to go running down various paths, but I tried to stay close to Caroline’s experience . . .”

“It was tempting as a novelist to go running down various paths, but I tried to stay close to Caroline’s experience, which was largely domestic,” said Brown.

While the book spans Caroline’s lifetime, Brown made strategic choices to leap over periods of time and come to rest at points in Caroline’s life where there was dramatic intensity. Because the story is historical fiction, some of the dates have been changed in service of the story and characters created to deepen the narrative.

“My goal was to tell a story that is compelling because it is emotionally complex,” said Brown.
The book’s guiding metaphor is used as the title to the prologue: let whatever shines be noted.
“That phrase was the Royal Astronomical Society’s motto. I was delighted to find it. It felt like a useful metaphor to describe her character in the world and her and William’s astronomical work,” said Brown.
She said the greatest challenge of the book was learning enough to be able to tell the story from Caroline’s perspective.

Brown is now at work on her next project, a novel in stories.

“Every new project is engaging in its own way and has its own rules.”

“It would be wonderful if I could say that each novel was incrementally easier. Sadly, that is not so. Every new project is engaging in its own way and has its own rules.”

About the Author

Carrie Brown is the author of seven novels and a short story collection. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. 

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.