Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of historical fiction series "Rashi's Daughters" and "Rav Hisda's Daughter." She is a Talmud scholar, with expertise in Jewish women's history. Anton speaks to Jewish organizations all over the country about the research behind her novels, and her wonderful new novel, Enchantress, is hot off the presses this coming week. But let's be honest: I also wanted her here because you've never met anyone as warm, or welcoming, and doing events with her is always so much fun. Thank you, Maggie for being here!
What sparked this novel?
While studying Talmud, which I’ve been doing for over 20 years, I came across a curious passage where Rav Hisda’s daughter is sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them,” and more astonishingly, she is considered a prophet because that is what ultimately happens. First she marries the older one and later, after she’s widowed, she marries the other.
I couldn’t get this audacious girl out of my head. How could she say ‘both of them,’ when asked which suitor she wanted? I had to tell her story.
What was the research like?
It was quite a challenge. True there were some books that dealt with the history of Jews in Babylonia, but since my characters were only known from the Talmud, most of the information I needed came from there. The English translation ran 72 volumes – with no index. But it was incredible to learn all these great things about how the early rabbis and their families lived, things very few people know about. Despite the importance of the Talmud, third and fourth century Babylonia is definitely a “black hole” in Jewish history. Nobody studies it.
What surprised you the most?
That magic was so prevalent in these times, that the Talmudic rabbis and their wives cast spells and wrote incantations, and that this was completely accepted. In the case of healing magic and protection from demons it was even approved of, and women were a big part of it.
Was there anything you found that changed the course of the novel as you were writing it?
When I discovered that Rav Hisda, his daughter, and her second husband all practiced sorcery, I realized that Jewish magic was going to play an important role in this series. My previous plot was going to involve all sorts of palace intrigues between the ruling Persian nobles, Jews, and early Christians – a la Game of Thrones. That idea was abandoned and replaced by my heroine first learning to become an enchantress, and then, as her power grows, the challenges she must face from those who stand in her way. Eventually I had her battling a jealous evil sorceress, Ashmedai King of Demons, and even the Angel of Death.
What's your writing life like? Do you have rituals, do you outline?
I do most of my writing at night when I’m free from interruptions like phone calls and emails; I’m often up way past midnight. A typical day starts with me lying in bed, half-awake, imagining upcoming scenes. I find that my mind is most creative during this controlled dream-like state. Eventually I get up, eat breakfast and read the newspaper before heading to my computer. Then there’s email and other online tasks like Facebook, Goodreads, and my blog to deal with – and now there’s Twitter too. I work at home, so that makes me in charge of laundry, cooking, shopping, and caring for grandchildren when they’re sick or out of school/daycare for some reason. If I’m lucky I start writing in the late afternoon.
I use a broad outline, more of a timeline, to keep the scenes in place and make sure nobody is pregnant for 18 months or things like that. But the outline changes as I think of new plot points and drop old ones, and sometimes the characters take off in directions I hadn’t anticipated.
I don’t think I have any rituals.
When we last saw each other, you mentioned that you might not write another book. I can't imagine that! Is this true?
I also admitted that there was some characters and a story chasing around in my mind, one that refuses to leave. So I’ll probably write it, but there’s a difficulty in that I will need some legal permissions before it can be published. So I don’t know what will happen.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Besides this new story that’s driving me crazy, I’m now consumed with promoting Enchantress. An author’s work isn’t finished when the book is written, not if she wants anyone to read it. I learned so many amazing things about Talmud and ancient Jewish magic, including women’s place in them, and I want to share these with the many Jewish women’s organization who will appreciate them. So I’m obsessed with contacting every synagogue sisterhood and Hadassah chapter I can find and offering to speak at their meetings. That’s how I made the first volume of Rashi’s Daughters, which I self-published, so successful that Penguin, Crown, and Harper-Collins had a bidding war for the second and third volumes.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Do I have any regrets about becoming a novelist? Obviously the answer is “yes.” I didn’t start working on Rashi’s Daughters until I was almost 50, and for the previous 40 years I was a voracious reader of fiction. No favorite genre; along with literary fiction I devoured SciFi, thrillers, murder mysteries, fantasy, historicals, even children’s books.
After I began writing, my love affair with novels soured. It became increasingly difficult to lose myself in the story as I learned to recognize the craft behind it. If a book was really good, it depressed me because I knew I could never write so well. And I lost patience quickly if it was bad or even mediocre. Worse, my style would become contaminated by whatever novel I tried to read. Before the movie came out, my daughter insisted I read The Help, but it wasn’t long before my medieval characters were talking with a Southern accent.