A New Novel Blends Loss, Memory, and the Consequences of Choices

Hannah Assadi’s “The Stars Are Not Yet Bells” follows a woman from her youth during the Depression through the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Eve Glasberg
March 30, 2022

At the end of the Great Depression, Elle Ranier believes that by marrying a wealthy man, Simon, she is saving her life. Young and impressionable, she leaves New York City for the island of Lyra, off the coast of Georgia. There, Elle harbors a secret. Her so-called “cousin,” Gabriel, who comes to stay, is really a boyfriend from back home—and the love of her life. Fifty years later, her memory clouded by Alzheimer’s, Elle looks back at her life and tries to untangle it.

Hannah Assadi, an adjunct writing professor at the School of the Arts, discusses her new novel, The Stars Are Not Yet Bells, with Columbia News, as well as how she manages writing and teaching, how important reading is for writers, and what she’s working on now.

Q. What inspired you to write this book? 

A. I came across an old photograph of my grandmother with a man no one recognized. She looked happy, in love, and so alive, whereas I had only ever heard her described in relation to the disease that defeated her—Alzheimer's. I wanted to write about how the course of a life can be altered by a single decision. Also, as a novelist, having always been interested in memory and time, Alzheimer's was inherently intriguing to attempt portraying. 

The Stars Are Not Yet Bells by Columbia U. School of the Arts Professor Hannah Assadi

Q. How does the intersection of writing and teaching affect you?

A. As much as I learn reading from the Greats, I learn from teaching and engaging in dialogue with my students. It almost feels like a spiritual exercise to participate in the types of conversations that occur in the classroom on the craft of fiction. More than anything, I feel fortunate to teach. 

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

A. A writer must read constantly. Even when she isn't reading a book, she must close-read her life, her relationships, her past, and her surroundings for her craft. 

Q. What have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

A. I recently reread The Great Gatsby, and I still think it's one of the most perfect (because it's imperfect) novels of all time. I just taught the story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," by Amy Hempel, and it still makes me cry. I read a beautiful, recently published novel called Tides by my former MFA classmate, Sara Freeman, which I highly recommend. And I am looking forward to a forthcoming title, Walk the Darkness Down, by my dear friend, Daniel Magariel. 

Q. What are you teaching this semester?

A. I am teaching a graduate fiction writing workshop.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. A third novel, and something new for me—I am doing research on a historical figure for a screenplay. 

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or writers, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. William Faulkner, because I want my guests to drink too much. Emily Bronte, because I want to talk about Heathcliff. Rumi, because I want the party to get a little transcendent. 

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