People of the Book: Interview
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Your previous two novels are set during Europe’s plague years and the American Civil War. Now, you’ve created an epic story about art and religious persecution. What is it that draws you to a particular subject? Or a particular historical era?
I love to find stories from the past where we can know something, but not everything; where there is enough of a historical record to have left us with an intriguing factual scaffolding, but where there are also enough unknowable voids in that record to allow room for imagination to work
What do you think it is about the real Sarajevo Haggadah that has allowed it to survive the centuries?
It’s a fascinating question: why did this little book always find its protectors, when so many others did not? It is interesting to me that the book was created in a period—convivencia Spain—when diversity was tolerated, even somewhat celebrated, and that it found its way centuries later to a similar place, Sarajevo. So even when hateful forces arose in those societies and crushed the spirit of multi-ethnic, interfaith acceptance, there were those individuals who saw what was happening and acted to stop it in any way they could.
Were you already working on People of the Book when March won the Pulitzer Prize? How does winning such a prestigious award affect your writing?
I was working on People of the Book even before I started to write March. I’d been struggling quite a bit with the World War II story: it’s such a picked-over period and I was looking for a backwater of the war that wouldn’t perhaps feel so familiar to readers. That search was leading to a lot of dead ends when I suddenly got the idea for March and it was so clear to me how to write that book that I just did it.
The Pulitzer Surprise, as my then-nine-year-old son so accurately dubbed it, affected my writing only in that it interrupted it for a while by drawing renewed attention to March. But after a few weeks of pleasant distraction I was back at my desk, alone in a room, simply doing what I’ve always done, which is trying to write as best I can, day after day.
Book conservation is hardly a glamorous job but Hanna’s framing narrative is every bit as action-packed and compelling as the stories in the Hagaddah’s history. What inspired her creation?
Because I like to write with a first-person narrator, getting the voice of the book is everything to me. I’d struggled a lot with my first idea, which was to have the conservator be Bosnian. I love the way Sarajevans express themselves; it’s a kind of world-weary, mordant wit overlying an amazing ability to absorb and survive great suffering. But I wasn’t getting the voice and the book was stalled as a result. Then I suddenly thought, well, why shouldn’t she be Australian? That’s a voice I can hear clearly. Hanna came alive in my head and as a result the contemporary story, which I’d originally thought of as merely a framing device for the stories from the past, became much more important.
The scientific resources that Hanna employs to find out more about the book’s artifacts are really fascinating. How much of that is drawn from actual research and how much springs from your imagination?
I went to labs. I interviewed scientists and conservators and observed their work. But the book is fiction, not a technical treatise, so experts will be able to spot a place or two where I took some small liberties.
The Jewish people have endured extraordinary trials. How much about this history did you know before writing the book?
Most of it. The whipsaw of Jewish history has fascinated me since I was in junior high.
Who is your favorite character and why?
That’s like asking a parent to name a favorite child. Hanna became like a good mate, and I actually miss hanging out with her. But I feel a certain tenderness towards all of the characters, perhaps especially the most flawed ones.
People of the Book is set in so many different eras. Was it a more difficult book to research and write than your previous novels?
There was definitely more to research, but it wasn’t difficult: I loved the various journeys—actual and intellectual—that it took me on. Seeing the domes and spires of Venice shimmering in the watery morning light; having the great privilage of meeting Servet Korkut, who supported her husband in resisting fascism; watching Andrea Pataki painstakingly take apart the real Sarajevo Haggadah—these are experiences of a lifetime.
Will the book be published in Bosnia and, if so, what kind of reception do you anticipate?
I hope it will. I have no idea about the reception. It’s very presumptuous, what I do: meddling around in other people’s history. When I went back to Eyam, the plague village, I fully expected a faction of the townsfolk to want to have me clapped in the stocks. (They still have them there.) To my intense relief, the people I met had really embraced the book. I had the same feelings of trepidation when I went to read March in Concord, Massachusetts. I was delighted to be met at the reading by Louisa May Alcott (Jan Turnquist, director of the remarkable Orchard House Museum, in costume) who thanked me for being one of the very few who had tried to understand and appreciate her father. So, I hope the people of Bosnia will forgive me for taking liberties with their history and see the book as a tribute from someone who was inspired by the remarkable spirit of Sarajevo.
What are you working on now?
I’m just at the earliest stages of exploring an intriguing story set very close to home, on Martha’s Vineyard. It concerns people who lived on this island in 1666, one of my favorite years, and seems to have just the right mix of knowns and unknowables—a lovely incomplete scaffold to build on.