Thursday, September 15, 2016

A biblical heroine, an empire of Jewish warriors, miniskirts, and so much more. Emily Barton talks about her amazing novel, THE BOOK OF ESTHER

"Raises complex questions about history and mythology." The New Yorker

 I love books with a historical background. Emily Barton, in the richly praised The Book of Esther, gives us a Jewish heroine, a tribe of Jewish warriors, Hitler, and more. I'm honored to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Emily.

I love the premise, changing history so that the Jewish warriors of the Middle Ages actually succeeded. What was haunting you into writing this particular book?

Partly the enigma of the historical Khazars themselves. We know that they were a Turkic warrior tribe whose ruling classes converted to Judaism, but we don’t know why, though there is speculation. Then, the whole idea of a warrior Jew! Michael Chabon has written about how incongruous the idea seems to contemporary people, who see before us “an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a sabre: the pirate Motel Kamzoil,” though in fact, lots of Jewish people have been badass warriors, all the way back to Judah Maccabee. And part of it, too, is reimagining the myth of origins. When my family got pogromed out of Ukraine and Russia, they left their history behind them. We don’t know what boats they came over on, or the names of the villages they left. Imagining a glamorous and daring past for my ancestors is a definite part of it.

The research involved must have been amazing. What surprised you? Did anything derail the book from the track you had intended for it?

Topography. To keep myself from getting bogged down in research, I seek things out as I need them, or sometimes later. So I went ahead and wrote the whole first draft without consulting a map, basing my geographical understanding of the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian on memory. The first draft had 180 pages of battle plot that involved climbing a mountain range and descending the other side; which, if you think about it, is pretty much the definition of plot, at least the Freitag’s Triangle/five-act structure version. Then, I looked at a map. Guess what? Those mountains don’t exist. So I had to rethink a big, central chunk of the plot. I managed to make use of some of the scenes, rewritten to take place on flat ground.

Some of the most interesting things I learned may not show as “research” to a reader. For example, I don’t personally know any Karaite Jews, and I wanted to represent them fairly and sympathetically. Through a friend of a Facebook friend, I managed to get in touch with the Chief Rabbi of Karaism; I was moved that he took time to answer questions. Then: pigeons. As someone who lived in Brooklyn for many years, I took pigeons—and anti-pigeon prejudice, “flying rats” talk, etc.—for granted. But once I started to learn more about them, I came to understand how remarkable they are. With my new knowledge, I was able to distinguish some of the pigeons on my block. That was cool. Maybe the most surprising thing I learned along the way was that the historical Khazars were Rabbinical Jews, which means that although they lived more than a thousand years ago, on the Asian Steppe, they would recognize some of the ways people practice Judaism today.

But, on the other hand, you’ve reimagined history and told an alternate story altogether. What was that like?

I like writing in and around history. While writing The Book of Esther, I had taped to my wall a handwritten timeline on which one line represented the progress of the Battle of Stalingrad and a second represented the novel’s plot. A third line marked the progress of the Hebrew calendar, since all the book’s dates are given in Hebrew, rather than Gregorian, terms. The moments where there were synergies—where real and imagined history veered close together, or connected in some way with an important moment in the Jewish liturgical calendar—felt charged, magnetic. On the other hand, there’s great freedom in making things up, in writing into the lacunae of history. You get to explore the what-ifs and the might-have-beens, which are so rich with possibility.

What kind of writer are you? Did you map this all out before you began or did the writing just flow? (Ha, as if that ever happens to a writer! We can always hope, though.)

\Because I’m preoccupied with plot, some of the story’s main points existed from the beginning. I knew Esther and Itakh would set out on a dangerous journey; I knew she’d seek transformation; I knew there had to be a climactic battle scene. But other plot points unfolded along the way—some the natural consequences of earlier events; others seemingly gifts. I’ve never had a whole project mapped out from the beginning, nor have I ever experienced that total, inspired flow you speak of. Like so many other writers, I oscillate between the two poles while I’m working.

This isn’t your first novel where you reimagined history (There is the fabulous Brookland), but how did writing this novel differ?

A few ways. One is that I had two children in between Brookland and The Book of Esther. So my whole life is different: my workday, my expectations for how much I can get done, apparently the structure of my brain. Another difference: All the time I was writing Book of Esther, I was thinking of it as a side project, as a break I was taking from another novel. This took away some of the pressure one normally puts on oneself to “succeed” or to do things the right way, whatever that is.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Miniskirts, because they’re back in style, and fall outfits in general. Dark dresses, deep-colored nail polishes. Siamese kittens, because my eight-year-old “solemnly promises” me one for my birthday, but I’m a) uncertain we should get a second cat right now and b) feeling that if we do, I’d prefer to adopt one than to buy it, so there are levels of complexity to letting him fulfill his promise. The cost of various repairs our house needs; how tenuous the babysitting arrangement is that will allow me to teach my graduate class this fall. Kids in Miami having to be protected against Zika to attend school. Floods, wildfires. The election, the election, the election. The lemonade stand my kid wants to set up to support Zephyr Teachout, our local Congressional candidate.

All of those things are on my mind, to varying degrees at different times, every bit as much as the writerly obsessions related to my new book: typography and letterpress printing, kabbalistic arcana, how to tell a certain kind of story, write a certain kind of plot. It’s interesting to me how writerly obsessions reflect part of a person, but not the whole person; and how that person has to learn to put other things aside in order to get work done. E.B. White said in his Paris Review interview, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” It’s true; those circumstances never aris e. I’m interested in how we learn to work despite and around that.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

EB: You’ve asked such great questions. Here are some ideas:

“Do you like teaching?” Yes.

Would you be interested in running a creative writing program?” Yes.

“If someone reading this interview happened to be thinking, ‘I'm interested in singlehandedly funding the launch of an overtly feminist/progressive MFA program. I wonder if Barton would be interested in being the founding director,’ what would you say to that?” Yes all day.

“If you had to change careers right now, what would you do?” I’d be the CEO of a textile company. My next choice after that would be to be an urban planner, working on traffic patterns and flow.

“Have you ever ghostwritten?” Yes.

No comments: