By Rachel Coker
Liz Rosenberg's new novel centers on a legal battle between two cousins, but it's no mere courtroom drama. The Laws of Gravity, published in May, also features an international adoption, a deep friendship between two women, a romantic rabbi and quite a bit of comedy.
"I started out as a poet, so a novel seems like an incredibly large and roomy space to walk around in," says Rosenberg, a professor of English in Harpur College. "I have much more time than I'm used to. The idea of having a few hundred pages gives me a remarkable feeling of liberation."
The Laws of Gravity, a project that evolved over several decades before Rosenberg settled down to write it, focuses on a young mother dying of cancer and her cousin, who decides not to give her the umbilical cord blood he has banked for his children after first agreeing to do so. She takes him to court in a desperate attempt at a life-saving cure. The story, set in the present day on Long Island, features a rich cast of supporting characters.
Rosenberg says the late John Gardner, her first husband and an author who taught creative writing at Binghamton, used to talk about a novel as a buffet. "He said it should have something for everyone," she says. "Whatever you're passionately concerned about or worried about, whatever you're obsessing about, you put it into the novel."
She adds: "You're measuring this thing you're doing against all these other things you love: movies, music, Japanese prints. You want to drag in as much as you can. And it's scary, frankly, especially if you're used to writing poems where you take one thing and focus very intensely on it. You're afraid you're going to use up everything. But the world is infinitely interesting. If you just follow the cues, you'll be looking at something new."
One thing Rosenberg takes a long look at in the novel is friendship, both the dying woman's close relationship with her best friend as well as the awkward first steps of a friendship between the judge and his neighbor. "I don't think enough has been written about the power of friendship between women," she says. "It's not fully comprehended. I don't think men like to think about it. And women learn not to talk about it."
That emphasis on female friendship doesn't mean that all the women in the books are saints, however. There's an eccentric aunt, a shark lawyer and a loudmouthed sister-in-law, to name just a few of the more flawed female figures. "I'm doing the same thing for my female characters that I do for my male characters," Rosenberg says. "It's not a black-and-white world. Clearly, one of the things I'm thinking about in the book is motherhood. So I wanted several kinds of mothers. I need a non-nurturing mother. I wanted a traditional mother. I wanted a super-nurturing mother, and also a new mother who's just finding her way. You use a novel as a fractured lens to look at the same issue from many sides. If I were to present women as uniformly loving and loyal friends, that would be doing a disservice to what we are as half the human race."
Rosenberg finds joy in the writing of these "bit parts," and as a longtime literature professor she's well-versed in their virtues. "I try to write the kind of book I like to read," she says. "And in the work of J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens—even Dostoyevsky—a great part of their genius is their endlessly inventive creation of secondary characters."
The Laws of Gravity may share that attention to detail with Rosenberg's first novel, Home Repair, but the books have some important differences as well. Not the least of these changes is that Rosenberg's publisher this time around is online giant Amazon.
"I guess I made the riskier choice," she says, noting she had two comparable, competing offers: one from Amazon and another from a traditional publisher. "I decided to go with the new kid in town. I had become frustrated about the need to promote yourself so much. It doesn't come naturally to me. Amazon has this enormous outreach. They seem to have the machinery in place. And they have allowed an incredible number of writers to be published who would not be published otherwise."
Rosenberg knows that many independent bookstores and publishers view Amazon as the enemy, but she says her experience has been a positive one. She also continues to work with traditional publishers on other projects. "Amazon hasn't always behaved in the world of commerce the way I wish they would," she says. "But neither have the publishers or the booksellers. It's a situation in which everybody is imperfect. I've seen so many villains come and go in the book world. I'm just grateful to be able to do what I love, and that is to write."
Last Updated: 9/9/16