An interview with Sarah Kornfeld

Interview by Jack Messenger

To begin with, please tell us a little about how this most unusual novel came about.

I have a very personal relationship to the formation of this book. I was having seizure-like episodes and I found them both scary and fascinating. I experienced my episodes like being under the water. When I came out of these moments I found myself obsessed with trying to explain them. When I could not, I started writing this novel! Stella has been my way of exploring the sea and health, on a very personal level.

The oceans, of course, have always been fundamental to life on Earth and to humanity. What exactly made you choose the sea as Stella’s world to explore?

I am deeply impacted by the work of my friend Wallace J. Nichols. He wrote the New York Times bestseller, Blue Mind. This is a book and area of research that explores our brains on water. Clearly, we are made up of water, but why do we love water (ocean, rivers, baths, streams) so much? The research is astounding: we must have water to reboot our brains, get a ‘blue mind’ which is meditative and healing. For Stella, I wanted her to have a child’s awareness of this reality without knowing the research. I wanted to explore a young person’s ocean genius, for most children have this insight about the power of water, but are told not to pay attention to that wisdom.

The world of modern art, at least as represented by its professional gatekeepers, its buyers and their wealthy clients, is shown to be cynical, jaundiced and all about the money. It’s also extremely insecure. How far is this a reflection of your own experience in that world? The novel gives the impression you have met some of these people – Julian, for example.

Ha! Well, I was born and raised in the theatre, and have deep ties to the international art world. Though I don’t know many dealers in the contemporary art world, I do know artists. My experience as a creative producer (working in site-specific art) gave me the personal desire to explore the push and pull of power that the world of art embodies. Julian is just the most creepy composite I could make of an art hound who lives off the creativity of others. That said, like all of the characters, I have empathy for his loneliness and hunger for meaning. So, yes, it’s a personal reflection of the trappings of power in the creative world.

A lot of What Stella Sees concerns convergence. Stella’s treatment in Paris is an immersive experience combining art, technology and psychology. Please tell us a little bit about what is happening and where you think these kinds of convergences might lead.

Thank you, that’s spot on. About twenty years ago I knew people involved in utilizing virtual reality with dolphins! I never forgot their stories of trying to capture the sonic waves that mammals blast under the water. The SeaBrain technology I made up for the novel is deeply inspired by these stories I heard floating around San Francisco, as well as the remarkable immersive experiences that friends of mine have innovated. So, the technology and the technologists are inspired by real people. As for now? We are now living in a time where virtual reality, and more specifically augmented reality, are being used for healing. There are technologies that are being used for treating PTSD and general trauma that will probably be used more regularly in the future. While I don’t believe that technology heals all wounds, it certainly is interesting to think of its practical use for health.

Would you agree the novel is also about displacement of various kinds?

Yes, I agree with you completely. I had a goal to use the Talmudic exploration of inner worlds for this novel. That means the characters are intrinsically on their own path, a part of tribes that are not settled and looking to find their home. I found that walking a mile in each character, and sharing their displacement, provides a door into their humanity, as well as their path towards home.

I described What Stella Sees as full of incidental pleasures, one of which, for me, is the passage where Rachel hurries to a café toilet to adjust her makeup and clothing, to emerge as a chic elegant woman. This behind-the-scenes view of her is, somehow, both touching and admirable. Please can you comment about this or any other favourite scene you might have?

I am so happy you like that scene, Jack! I love the drama of being in another country and having to change your appearance to build a new chapter in your life. There are many scenes in the book that are looney, mad escapes, ranging from Mo leaving Bucharest in a garbage truck, Stella in Epilepsy camp getting it on with her first love (Andrea) as a means of escape, and others. I really do like the scene with Rachel, thanks for reminding me of that madcap scene.

Michael is shown to be an emotional, vulnerable man, making lists of women of his acquaintance for a possible relationship – probably a very male way to go about things. There’s no indication you had trouble writing about him, but did you encounter any difficulties with him, or anyone else, come to that?

Oh, I love poor Michael. He is such a soft soul. He means well, was a star very young in a very fickle world and now finds himself very alone. I felt, perhaps because of my theatre background, that Michael is an anti-hero – he’s weak, yet strong enough to try to be a good father. I found him heartbreaking to write, yet had to let him walk his path, one I don’t recommend to anyone.

Perception is an extremely important theme of the book – the title is What Stella Sees, after all. There are all kinds of perceptions in play: professional, artistic, emotional, imaginative, you name it. Characters have their perceptions changed or need them changed, perceptions need to go beyond surfaces and appearances to discover what lies behind. Were you aware of this right from the start or did it creep up on you?

Yes, I was very committed to perception as a construct for the characters. As I mentioned, I was Talmudic in my approach: every character has a perception of Stella’s point of view. Because of this, each character had to have very unique perceptions of their life. Additionally, because water is a silent character, we needed to dive into the layers found in oceans, and similarly into people. We all have thousands of layers and currents, just as the ocean has. I loved exploring the power of perception, and the disconnection people can have when perceptions are not understood.

You have managed effortlessly to avoid writing an ‘inspirational’ novel about a plucky young girl who teaches us true values. The world of What Stella Sees is a messy, conflicted one. The ghost of that other possible book might well have haunted you. Did you find yourself excising and revising to make sure it did not put in an appearance?

Yes, I was very aware of not writing a ‘feel good’ story about a young girl. I wanted her mess to be our mess, and to let the conflict inform a dramatic experience, and reading of the book. I spent a good amount of time with the editor, the remarkable Sally Arteseros, making sure that there was nothing ‘plucky’ (as you’ve said) about Stella or her experience. I wanted her to be as real to us as any kid we have met, and overlooked.

Have you ever had a really perfect experience? The kind that you can’t believe you didn’t have anything to do with, or didn’t manage or manufacture? Just an amazing experience out of the blue?

I have! When I was a kid I was an intern at the Bread and Puppet Theater summer extravaganza. We ran a football-sized field with fifteen-foot puppets that looked like birds. We ran these for hours in rehearsal and in performance. One day we ran them in the rain and I experienced what it might be like to fly. That was an almost perfect experience because I was so connected to the reality I was in, and I let go into the magic of that experience. Art can do that.

Humanity faces climatic catastrophe. We have two years to prevent our own extinction. If someone says to you we don’t need made-up stories when the world is in such desperate trouble, how will you reply?

We must have the stories of our own lives, and of the planet. I think it’s very telling that storytelling and writers are so in demand, today. In Hollywood, TV and stories are exploding with new ideas. Even though publishing is very hard, writers are still moving forward with manuscripts and ideas. Nothing can stop our need to leave our handprints on the walls of the cave. And, even more so now, now that we may have limited time on this planet, we need to state our meaning as a means for hope, or reflection.

What can we expect from you next?

I’m working on two projects right now. One is a novella about the lost limb of Sarah Bernhardt (true story!) as told by her red curtain. The other is a set of essays, 50 under 45. These are personal essays about being a woman hitting my second act of fifty while living under the reign of our 45th president (Trump). Both pick up themes of the arts, displacement and ethical dramas. I’m deep into both right now, waking early and choosing my genre with a cup of coffee. I look forward to sharing them with you when I am done!

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more about him at