Dara Horn drives a well-used minivan with which she cheerfully claims to have “an abusive relationship.” A car seat in the back belongs to the youngest of her four children, who are ages five, eight, 10, and 12. She lives in the same pretty New Jersey town where she grew up; her parents and two sisters live nearby and phone or drop in frequently. (Their brother lives “far away—in Westchester.”) Brewing coffee in her spacious kitchen on an early fall day, dressed in lilac jeans and sleeveless blouse, she seems at age 40 the picture of the typical suburban mom.
Don’t be fooled. When Horn was a Harvard undergraduate, a publisher contacted her about expanding an article she wrote for American Heritage into a book. (The project fell through but connected her with Gary Morris, who is still her agent today.) She wrote her first novel, In the Image, while studying Hebrew literature at Cambridge University. Her second, The World to Come, was published in 2006, the same year that she completed her Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature. She’s the kind of person who can casually tell you in which Platonic dialogue Socrates warned that written texts would destroy true learning (Phaedrus, of course). Her formidable scholarship and intellect would be intimidating if Horn weren’t also funny and down-to-earth.
The same is true of her fifth novel, Eternal Life, which Norton will publish in January. Its heroine, Rachel, was granted eternal life as a young woman in ancient Jerusalem; in the 21st century she is a self-described “crazy old lady” who has long since discovered that living forever is no picnic. Horn explores the metaphysical implications of this venerable theme while weaving a thrillerlike plot involving the efforts of Rachel’s granddaughter Hannah, a brilliant medical researcher, to make Gram part of her project “to solve the problem of death.” Meanwhile, Rachel’s memories evoke the weariness of eternal life through the lens of female experience (“how many thousands of times she had nursed an infant, how many meals she had cooked for others”).
Horn acknowledges matter-of-factly that “the idea of an immortal character is not original” (probably, few ideas seem original to someone as widely read as she is). She adds: “But if you look at those stories, they’re never about fertile women. What initially got me started on this idea was this sense in my own life of time not passing, which was due to my situation as a mother. I have four children. I’d be at some preschool graduation, and parents with smaller families would be all teary-eyed, saying, ‘Oh, it goes by so fast!’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this again next year!’ Ten and a half continuous years of changing diapers... I just did not have that experience of it going by so fast. To me, even though it has this supernatural premise, Eternal Life is my most autobiographical book.”
Horn continues: “I wouldn’t even call it supernatural because to me it’s how I experience life, which is with a historical consciousness. The word supernatural implies some sort of world beyond our own, but really my subject is time. The fact that it goes in one direction, that we can’t move through time, is something that has troubled me since I was a child. I was obsessed with the idea of days disappearing, that once a day went by you never got it back. I started writing because I thought if I recorded things that happened, this was a way of preserving time.”
Horn attributes this “hyperconsciousness” of time to her heritage. “As an American Jew you live in two cultures with completely opposing views of time. In America, only the present and the future matter: it doesn’t matter who your parents are, or what your background is; what matters is what you do with the opportunities this country gives you. The founding mythology of Jewish culture, when God gives the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, is exactly the opposite. It wasn’t just that generation of Israelites who were present, but all future generations of their descendants were also present. It actually does matter who your parents are, not just biologically, but as a cultural legacy. The most important thing in your life happened thousands of years before you were born, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Horn shares that heritage with her readers in her novels, which are steeped in Jewish history and culture. Not because she wants to instruct, she is careful to say: “I have no desire to be an esoteric or cerebral writer. When I bring these elements into a book, it’s to make accessible things that are moving to me. In The World to Come, I include all these stories from Yiddish literature to allow you, the reader, to feel like it is also yours—because it is; you just didn’t know about it before. What matters most to me is that any person should be able to pick up one of my books and read it and enjoy it. My job as a writer is to seduce you. There are a lot of other things you could be reading or doing. If you are picking up this book, I am going to grab you by the collar and bring you along—at least, that’s my hope.”
Horn likes to set herself a new goal with each book. “With my third novel, All Other Nights, I wanted to see if I could write a plot-driven book,” she says. “I felt my first two books were kind of jerry-rigged; I threw together multiple things and called them a plot. So I wrote a Civil War spy novel: one person, one place, one time, no tricks. With my fourth book, I remembered a reader who commented to me, ‘Why don’t you ever write about women? You don’t have female leads.’ So I wrote A Guide for the Perplexed, where the two main characters are women and the engine of the story is their relationship. With Eternal Life, I wanted to improve another thing about my work, which is that I tend to rely on layers: there’s this time, and then there’s another story in another time. I like that, and I’m not saying it’s a weakness, but I wanted to write something like ‘The Metamorphosis.’ So in this book, I took a totally normal world, and then changed just one thing.”
Horn wasn’t sure she had met her goal when she sent a draft of Eternal Life to Alane Mason, who has edited all five of her novels. “Alane is a very demanding editor who goes through everything line by line,” she says. “What generally happens is, I hand it in, she tells me all the things that aren’t working, I spend three days crying and eating cookies, and then I rewrite the entire book. The funny thing is, that didn’t happen with Eternal Life; she did not feel there was a lot to do.”
The proud author can’t resist showing me Mason’s appreciative email, adding: “This is not Alane; she is not a cheerleader. I didn’t know what to do when I got that email—I already had the cookies out!”