The father of philosopher Isaac Abravanel and grandfather of Judah the Lion (arguably the most famous member of this illustrious family) was in his own time one of the great leaders of Jewish Iberia. A courtier to the Portuguese king, Judah Abravanel financed many of the early explorations of Prince Henry the Navigator and served as an advisor on diplomatic and other matters. Judah Abravanel is also an important character in my novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014).
The difficulty I had fleshing out the character of Judah is the same as with all real-life individuals in my historical fiction. With invented characters, if I want to have them travel somewhere, I research how long it would take, what route was most likely, what conveyance they would use, and what might happen along the way. This research takes a great deal of time and effort, but once it is done, I can proceed with confidence to invent a story consistent with known facts.
With real life people, though, the challenge is different. There is a truth to their lives that can never be known. When Judah traveled, he took a specific route, had a specific means of transportation, and had specific experiences along the way. I cannot hope to guess right about all that. The standard to which serious and reputable historical novelists hold themselves may vary in some particulars, but the bottom line is that as long as we don’t do anything to misrepresent the person or the story, a novelist is free to fill in the details.
What has to be filled in, however, is almost everything that makes a novel—dialogue, everyday details, emotional life. I may not know specifically what Judah Abravanel had for breakfast, but if I know what was typical for Jews of the time, it is reasonable to put a plate of that in front of him. Assuming some reactions and emotions are universal seems fair as well. It’s either that or not write at all, so I make my peace with the idea that I can get many particulars wrong without telling untruths in a larger, more important sense.
With Judah I faced another dilemma, one which I think may give some readers pause. I want to avoid spoilers, so I must keep this general, and you can read the book if your curiosity is aroused. At one point he advises a young, intelligent, and spirited Jewish widow that she might want to consider nurturing a relationship with an attractive, unmarried Muslim man visiting Lisbon. “Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Could that happen?”
The answer, I believe, is yes it could. Would it? I don’t know. Do you? Since she was a widow, there was no chastity to protect and little chance any Jewish man would propose marriage. In fact, the Talmud strongly warns against marrying a widow for fear her late husband’s spirit would cause trouble. Still, it would take a very special man to care about this woman’s happiness, and to venture into the territory of her personal relationships.
Was Judah this kind of man? Possibly not. Perhaps he would have sternly admonished her to keep to her widow’s weeds and not question God’s will. That fits the stereotype, but how accurate are those? Perhaps we don’t give people of that time enough credit for having their own minds.
At any rate, I chose to think of Judah as recognizing that what falls outside of observance of Jewish law is a matter of choice, someone able to recognize what is no one else’s business. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like this version of him. Besides, as a novelist, an opening for a very romantic and passionate relationship is an opportunity not to be missed. It is fiction, after all, and historical novelists count on readers to remember that.
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Once upon a time, a person could easily make reference to a rabbi, maybe a rav, and maybe even a rebbe, but a kabbalist?
In Jerusalem, a kabbalist is as common as a plumber. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. In the holy city, the lexicon of magic, amulets and incantations are as real as the corner drugstore. You have a cold? Go to a kabbalist. You have a problem in religion? Go to a kabbalist. You want to marry a man? Go to a kabbalist, he’ll help you.
For the past seven plus years I’ve been swimming in kabbalists, collecting true tales from whoever visited with these mystic figures and rebbes. It was research for my novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. Of course, I had my own set of kabbalists I’d met during the ten years I’d lived in Jerusalem, but oddly my experiences created a writerly static in my mind. To construct a fictional kabbalist, I needed to start from scratch.
Someone told me about a kabbalist who predicted he’d win a good chunk of money and he did, only to spend it all on expensive dental surgery the following week. Then there was the kabbalist, quasi-prophetess who directed someone to the exact place where she would meet her bashert, at a silver factory in Givat Shaul. (I don’t recall if she went or not.) A Hasidic man told me about a kabbalist he’d consulted with who said a special prayer whenever his non-religious brother was on the verge of getting married to a non-Jewess. Break-ups always followed shortly after. Continue reading
When I was a kid, every morning I’d watch my father shave from my perch on the rim of the bathtub. After he washed and patted down his face, he’d squeeze body cement onto the bumpy pale wedge where his real ear used to be. Then he’d paste on his rubber ear, which gave his head a nice gluey smell. As for the prosthetic ear, it was unnoticeable, that is, until you noticed it, and then it lent him a curious air, like a man patched together from scraps and pieces.
He’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting his ear to see if he’d placed it well, and then stories about his own life would start coming: the dirt poor Depression years when his mother had to use burlap bags as underwear or diapers; how he learned to wrestle so no one would ever again pick on him because of his ear; the twenty-nine relatives who all lived in one small house in the 1930s, the whole crew subsisting on Grandpa Sam’s single salary as a tailor; how he became religious in his late twenties and so set in motion a generation’s return to Judaism. Later, around the Shabbos table, he told us Hasidic tales and epic scenes from the Bible. Truth be told, it didn’t matter what he was saying. He knew just how to pause to make us yearn for the next sentence. He was a born storyteller. Continue reading
I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game,The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.
Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.
While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I’d told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.
The first step for me in writing fiction is deciding which of my characters is telling the story. I might sense an entire novel taking form inside of me but if I start writing from the wrong point of view I cannot find the story I want to tell. My most recent novel, The Imposter Bride, is a case in point. The first scene of the novel seemed to write itself. It describes a young woman named Lily arriving in Montreal immediately following the Second World War, having taken someone else’s identity to cross borders and gain entry to a new life in a new country. The first drafts of the early chapters told the story from Lily’s point of view but each time I tried to move beyond that first scene I hit a wall. A first person account of a Holocaust survivor’s life during and after the war simply did not feel like it was mine to tell, nor did it feel like I was gaining entry into the heart of the novel I felt within me. I kept writing and rewriting from Lily’s perspective for longer than I care to admit, aware that it wasn’t working but not pinpointing that the problem was one of perspective and point of view. Finally, one morning another voice came into my head. It was the voice of a six-year-old girl, the daughter of Lily, living in Montreal in the 1950’s. As I began to follow that voice the story opened to me. The details and story lines that had eluded me for so long poured out. It became a story of the intergenerational effects of trauma within a family and within the community in which I was raised.
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.
Should I show my husband my work? My sister? My mother? Students sometimes ask me this. Go ahead, I say. Just don’t be too eager to listen to your family members’ opinions about your fiction. Parents and siblings bring too much non-literary baggage to their reading, so they’re not the ones to turn to for clearheaded advice. Which is a shame, I’ll be frank, because my mother thinks I’m a genius. My siblings are kind (though not uniformly) about my work. There are a few comments, over the years, that hurt at the time, that pain me less in retrospect. Here’s one that just interested me. My mother read a few stories of mine (in draft) and then asked, “Why do all your characters have to be Jewish?” She wasn’t asking this about the stories where there was a clear answer. If the story concerned Jews on the Lower East Side or a rabbi (as two of the stories in my most recent collection do), then that was fine. What she was asking was about the other stories. The ones with no clear Jewish content, where I nonetheless had made the characters Jewish. The story about the faltering marriage in Baltimore, the one about the cousins living together in a Cambridge apartment when Vaclav Havel’s press secretary comes to visit? They didn’thave to be Jewish, did they?
And the truth is, no, they didn’t. There was nothing in the stories that necessitated me clarifying their cultural heritage or spiritual lives. Still, even if I did edit the explicit mention of Jewishness out, as I did in some cases–because my mother was right it really didn’t need to be there–the characters remained Jewish in my head.
Why, exactly? I could say that I have spent my whole life as a Jew, even if as a completely secular one, and that is the lens through which I see the world, but I have spent my whole life as a woman, and I find myself able to write from a man’s point of view. I have spent my whole life as an identical twin, and I only once wrote about a character who is an identical twin. I think it has more to do with the immediate kinship that I feel with some Jews, the sense that we share a sensibility. Intelligence, warmth, self-deprecating humor, liberal politics, rugelach, books, and black and white cookies occupy the same place in our hearts. Which is to say that we highly value them. OK, well, maybe not the black-and-white cookies, not for all Jews. I can see that might be a debatable point. And everyone doesn’t share my politics, I know. But you get the idea. There’s a certain coziness I feel with other Jews, and it’s a coziness I like to feel with my characters. My characters are in a quite literal way (of course) “my people.” So, no surprise, I suppose, that they should resemble my people in a larger sense, the ones I come from and the ones for whom I feel a special affection.