Renowned operatic baritone Thomas Hampson was once asked how he managed to keep from crying during a tragic aria. His reply? If the composer had wanted him to cry he would have written it into the score. The singer’s job was to make the audience cry.
I have cried from time to time writing my novels, but less than readers have, if their comments are to be believed. Like Hampson, when I am writing an emotional scene, I am immersed in conveying its intensity to the reader using the only tool I have—words.
It’s a form of parallel processing, feeling the story enough to write it richly, and remaining just enough outside it to find the words. A reader can say in a blubber of tears, “Oh that’s just so sad,” or scream “No!” when something terrible happens, but I can’t. Nor—and this is more difficult—can I tell you what to feel. I have to take you there.
Even my most romantic stories are the product of something not the usual stuff of love: practical decision making. I know what needs to happen for the overall story to progress. I introduce characters and plot elements to help me tell the tale. Somewhere along the line, the story takes off so dramatically I sometimes wonder if I am in charge at all, or just taking dictation.
In my novels, the protagonists are always my inventions, and thus much of my plot is driven by the need to have them be where the history and biographical figures are most interesting. In my latest novel, The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks 2014), this involved getting a young Jewish girl, Amalia, into the court of Henry the Navigator, but since I wanted her also to witness the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, she had to live long enough to become a great-grandmother. For the first time in my writing career, I had to figure out how to tell a multi-generational saga through the eyes of one woman. I knew I also wanted her story to include the rich world of Muslim Spain, so I had to figure out a way to get Amalia to the court of the Caliph of Granada and then find a reason and means for her to leave so all the rest could happen.
Because I love Amalia, I also wanted her to have a rich life, full of family and friends. A second level of decisions required finding characters, both historical and invented, who could populate her world in the way I desired. I want to avoid spoilers here, so I will say only that love—deep, passionate, fulfilling love—is a big part of her memories as she looks back on her life while waiting for the ship to take her into exile. So are her bonds with women, which are always at the core of my novels. So is her identity as a Jew, for which she has risked so much, gaining great depth and richness of spirit in return.
I gave her a good life, though rarely an easy one. She is waiting within the pages of The Mapmaker’s Daughter to tell you about it.
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