Two separate interviews in which Dara Horn discusses All Other Nights and The World To Come.
An Interview with Dara Horn in which she suggests that historical novels are more about the time in which they are written than the time in which they take place. The Q&A ends with detailed examples of the ciphers used by both the North and South during the Civil War.
What attracted you to the idea of setting a book in the Civil War?
I think that every historical novel is really much more about the time in which it is written than the time in which it takes place, and that is very true for this book. The Civil War attracted me because of how polarized America has become in the past decade, and because of how impossible it has become even to have a conversation about current events without knowing in advance what the other person believes. The divide between conservatives and liberals, or "red states" and "blue states," really does go back to the Civil War in so many ways; the "red states" and "blue states" tend to follow the Mason-Dixon line and its legacies.
In 2002, after my first novel was published, I was invited to speak in New Orleans , and while I was there, I came across an old Jewish cemetery. I was surprised to see that the graves went back to the early 1800s. When I read more about it, I discovered that New Orleans in the nineteenth century had the second largest American Jewish population after New York . I began reading about Jewish communities during the Civil War and discovered a wealth of material, and what most intrigued me was how these communities responded to the war. Generally they did so with a passionate patriotism, regardless of which side they lived on. But as a national community, their response was a bit unusual. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are "Southern" Baptists or "Southern" Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America by then, such as B'nai Brith, none of them split during the Civil War. One could claim this was due to the Jewish community's small size (about 130,000 Jews lived in America in 1860), but I also think there was a more profound reason. Today it is common for Americans to have relatives around the country, but in the nineteenth century this was fairly rareexcept among American Jews, who, because they were more often running businesses than running farms, were more likely to live mobile lives and to have relatives and business contacts in other parts of the country. This made them somewhat more likely than other Americans to appreciate the other side's point of view.
It was this tension between the need to prove one's loyalty to one's home and a sense of closeness to people on the other side that I found fascinating. Civil War fiction is usually written from an uncompromising point of viewmost often sympathetic to the South. I wanted to write something that showed the cruelty and the humanity of both sides, and in the Jewish community of the time I found a way to express it.
Do you think of yourself as someone with strong political views?
I am a political moderate, which makes me an endangered species. I am generally able to disagree with someone's point of view without also believing that they are the incarnation of evil. For this reason I'm particularly fascinated by situations where two sides demonize each otherespecially when there is a certain legitimacy to each side. To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Civil War was that most people who fought and died for the South didn't own slaves. Instead they saw themselves as defending their homes and defending an agrarian, traditionalist, independence-minded culture that they rightly saw as threatened by the way in which industry and technology had already changed the North. Most novels about the Civil War take a very particular approach to who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, whether novels nostalgic for the old South or novels that explore the evils of slavery. In my writing, I am more drawn to situations where the boundaries between good and evil don't run between people, but within them.
Your previous novels were quite openly engaged with the theological dimension of religion. Does that have any role in this book?
It's true that the supernatural is explicit in my previous books in a way that isn't apparent in this novel. But I do feel that there is a theological dimension to the book in the ethical dilemmas the characters confront and in the ways the characters change. The title "All Other Nights" refers to the Passover liturgy, when the youngest person present asks the question, "How is this night different from all other nights?" But the question behind that question is more difficult to answer: Are weor do we have to bethe same people from one night to the next? Do people ever really change? Or, to put it in religious terms, is repentance possible?
Nineteenth-century Americans often referred to God as " Providence ," suggesting not only a provider but also an arbiter of destiny. There are a number of places in this book where characters see the events around them as directed by " Providence "and in more than one instance, they turn out to be demonstrably wrong about the impact of those events. To me, the most powerful theological notion is the idea of human free will, the awesome responsibility that people have for their own choices. The crimes and betrayals committed by the characters in this novel are unforgivable, but those characters cannot continue their lives without finding some way to atone for what they have done. In the novel, the characters often have opportunities to revisit these crimes, when they find themselves confronted once more with similar choices to make. Then they have to decide whether they are capable of being different people tonight than they were in the past.
Are the characters in the novel based on real people?
There are several real historical figures who appear in the book. The most prominent of these is Judah Benjamin. We think of the Civil War South as being institutionally bigoted, and of course it waswhich is why it is striking that Benjamin was Jewish. Benjamin was a prominent lawyer who was a U.S. senator prior to the Civil War; he was born in the Caribbean and could trace his family's history to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Despite widespread belief that he was one of the smartest people in North America , he was also loathed far more than were his peers and he was frequently abused in the press. He is also a cryptic figure in history, one who deflected personal questions, had few if any intimate friends, and burned all his own papers. I saw his career as a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to be Jewish in America at the time, though sometimes a devastating glimpse as well.
Other characters in the book are also inspired by real people, including both Jewish and non-Jewish spies for the North and the South. Some of these simply provided fun factsthere was one female Southern spy who had the ability to dislocate her own jaw at will, for instance, and who was engaged to sixteen men at the same time. But one of the more compelling figures to inspire these characters was Eugenia Levy Phillips. She was a Southern Jewish woman who spied for the Confederacy and was imprisoned twice by Union forcesonce in the home of fellow spy Rose Greenhow and once in a boxcar in the Gulf of Mexico . Her husband, Philip Phillips (I couldn't make this up), a Jewish congressman from Alabama , was actually a moderate who opposed the South's secession from the Union, while his wife was obviously a fire-breathing Rebel. Despite these differences, they raised nine children together, and Mr. Phillips even used his political influence to secure his wife's release from captivity. I was intrigued by how a marriage can transcend a historic moment, and by how the "causes" we believe in change when they become personal.
What lies behind your decision to mix genuine historical figures and fictional characters in your work, rather than writing "pure" history or "pure" fiction?
The kind of fiction I tend to like best is usually the kind rooted in reality, allowing the reader to imagine his or her way into a life lived by someone else. One particularly voyeuristic way to achieve this is to write about someone who actually existed. In some ways, these real-life characters become a kind of historical detail in the book, like riding crops and gas lampswith the effect of making the story's setting more vivid and making the invented characters seem all the more real in the process.
But as an academic with a tremendous respect for the unanswerable questions in historical research, I am also terribly cautious about the way I include real people in fiction. I've never tried to write something from the point of view of a historical figure, for instance, because I think it would be very arrogant to pretend to know the thoughts of someone who really did once have his own thoughts and consciousness. Instead I introduce these people through the fictional characters who encounter them, and much of what comes through of these figures' personalities is filtered through the fictional character's point of viewjust as our view of these real people is colored by our own perspectives when we try to learn about their lives from historical sources. The challenge of trying to bring these people to life in fiction, in ways that would be impossible if I were writing conventional history, is to serve the story while trying to be fair to the reality of these people's lives.
While, as I've said, many of the characters in the book are composites or inspired by real-life historical figures, only three are "borrowed" from history with the known details of their real lives left intact: Judah Benjamin (the Confederate secretary of state), Edwin Booth (a renowned New York actor who was the brother of Lincoln's assassin), and John Surratt (a Confederate courier who was arrested for his alleged involvement in Lincoln's murder, though he avoided conviction). Of course, there is some security in depicting people long dead, but less than you'd expect. My previous novel, The World to Come, also featured real-life figures: the painter Marc Chagall and the Yiddish writer Der Nister, both safely dead. But that was when I discovered the phenomenon of the Angry Heir. (Chagall's granddaughter liked the book, though I did hear from others who were less thrilled.) I look forward to hearing from more enraged descendants this time, especially those who have had over a century for their grievances to fester. I hope they'll believe me that I meant no disrespect.
There is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the ability or inability to say no. What got you thinking about that?
I was interested in exploring the ways in which freedom is a mental rather than a physical state. One character in the book, Caleb Johnson, is a slave who secretly works for the North as an agent for the Legal League, a network of African American spies that maintained an ancillary underground railroad for both black and white agents employed by the Northern government. (The Legal League really did exist. I based Caleb's character in part on John Scobell, a renowned African American spy who posed as a slave, as well as on other African American agents from the period.) When Caleb takes Jacob in at one point in the novel, it becomes clear that Caleb has made his own choices about what to devote himself to, and as a result he is far more of a free person than Jacob is. Throughout the book, Jacob makes choices without realizing that all along he had the freedom to do otherwise.
People frequently give up their mental liberty in exchange for any number of thingspride, status, ambition, love, or any other desireto fulfill the expectations of others, often without being aware of what they have lost. Freedom isn't about having no obligations, but about the ability to choose one's obligations.
I love your dedication to your children as "the cause." Yet, given that this novel has strong political themes and for each side the "cause" is political, it also makes me question: If our children are the only "cause," or a given "cause" is held as emotionally close as our children, can anything ever be achieved, or resolved, in politics?
In the book, one of the characters claims that "raising children is one of the only things one can do with one's life," because, as he puts it, "You can devote yourself to a cause, but what cause could be worth more than a child?" I do think that devotion to a cause is something that only people without children usually have the luxury of expressing. People who are parents have something else in their lives that will almost always matter more to them. But people with children are also more likely to have something else that people without children are somewhat less likely to have, which is empathy for other people's children. Large social changes tend to happen only when enough people see the problem at hand as something that affects their own childrenor when enough people are motivated to care about other people's children.
What were the particular satisfactions (or frustrations) of writing this novel?
My two previous novels are written from many different perspectives, with scenes taking place at various points in history, and never in chronological order. For me this was always an easier way to write a bookto follow whatever character's point of view was most intriguing, or use whatever historical period seemed most relevant to the themes of the story that emerged. As I began writing this book, though, I wondered if it would be possible for me to write a more traditionally structured novel: to write from just one character's point of view, with the events happening chronologically. That is, with no tricks.
Many contemporary novels (aspects of my previous books included) tend to rely on trickson jumping around in time or perspective, or telling stories in a manner far more complicated than necessary. This can be valuable, but only to a point. Ultimately the reader needs a story and characters worth caring about for their own sake, and not merely for the styles or techniques used to present them. It was very refreshing for me to write this book almost as a nineteenth-century novel, complete with all the shameless action-adventure plot twists that nineteenth-century readers would have expectedthe book includes a shoot-out at a wedding, a kidnapping plot, a prison break (or three), and so on. It was a lot of fun, but it also forced me to focus on what matters most in writing a novel: making the plot and the characters compelling.
There are several different kinds of codes and puzzles in the bookis that a particular fascination for you?
The great thing about Civil War ciphers and codes, for the general reader, is that they are on a human scale. After the 1930s, military codes became machine-generated, but ciphers prior to that were really just created by clever people, and were breakable by clever people too. That makes them a lot more fun for readers who don't have a supercomputer in their garage.
The codes used by the North and the South are especially fun in this way. The Northern ciphers changed continuously but were always based on a word-reordering system, where the words of a message were restructured according to particular patterns and then certain crucial words were replaced with substitutes. This makes the coded messages seem easy to translate, but they are actually quite difficult to crackso much so that when Southerners intercepted coded Northern messages, they had to resort to publishing them in the newspapers and asking the general public for help in decoding them. No one ever cracked the code. But the main Southern cipher was based on a two-layered alphabet substitution systemwhich makes the coded messages look completely indecipherable, but which is actually quite easy to break once you know how the letters are being substituted. (There are more detailed explanations of both ciphers at the end of this Q&A).
Some of the codes in the book are simply there for non-historical fun. Rose, the youngest of the spy sisters, speaks in palindromes and anagrams, a talent she uses when ciphering real messages. These codes and puzzles interest me because people almost always speak in some sort of code. In the novel and in real life, an enormous percentage of daily conversation consists of both outward and hidden meanings, and the way something is said is almost always more important that the words themselves.
Your first two books ranged around the world, from suburban New Jersey to Holland to the Soviet Union to Vietnam . This one is set purely in the United States . Do you have an itch to travel again? If so, where might you take us in your next novel?
I've been fortunate to travel a lot in my life; I've been to about fifty countries around the world, and that is something that has deeply influenced my novels. Now that I have three children aged three and under, I spend a lot more time closer to home. But I feel lucky to be able to draw from my experiences in other countries and cultures, even while writing a book set in my native countrybecause while this book takes place in America, it is a very different America from the one that anyone alive today has ever lived in. I don't know where my next book might goat the moment I've only written the first fifty pages that I'm sure to throw awaybut it will likely involve another country, even if it's only this country in the past.
IV. A Note on Codes and Ciphers
WISE ASSASSINATE IN ORDERED HIM HIS CIVIL IN FOR TONIGHT IS NIGHTS YOKE THE QUESTION FOR IS UNCLE TO ASIA MINT TO ON COMMANDERS WAR THE JACOB DIFFERENT FROM RAPPAPORT WHISKEY IT HAVE PASSOVER MURDER WHO DARA PLOTTING OWN HE ANSWERED A DURING JEWISH OTHER HOW ALL A WALNUT IS ALREADY 1862 HIS IS HORN.
(First two sentences of book description, in Union cipher)
THE UNION CIPHER SYSTEM
The cipher used by the Union during the Civil War worked through a system of routing columns. The code went through several evolutions between 1861 and 1865. In the cipher's most developed state, the first word of a ciphered message was a key word, indicating the number of columns and lines into which the subsequent words needed to be arranged as well as the route for reading them correctly. Meaningless words were used to complete columns or rows. Substitute words were used for terms such as state, city, and river names, names of officers or leaders on either side, hours of the day, military expressions, and later for common phrases. The key words and substitute words were initially few enough in number to fit on a small card or to be committed to memory. As the war progressed and the cipher became more complicated, however, twelve pages' worth of key words were used, along with over sixteen hundred substitute words. The cipher was contained in a booklet whose listings were themselves rather convoluted and obscure, and the absence of instructions in the booklet made it useless to any enemy who might find it. This example uses Cipher Number 9, the version used starting in January 1863.
The first word in the ciphered message, "WISE," indicates that the words have been arranged in six columns of nine lines each, and that the route for reading them correctly is up the third column, down the second, up the fourth, down the fifth, up the first, and then down the sixth. Here are the words rearranged according to this route, with substitute words decoded. (The last two words, "Dara" and "Horn," are of course meaningless.)
1 2 3 4 5 6
How is tonight different from all
other nights? For Jacob Rappaport, a
(YOKE) (WHISKEY) (WALNUT)
Jewish soldier in the Union Army
during the Civil War, it is
a question his commanders have already
answered for him: on Passover, 1862,
he is ordered to murder his
own uncle in New Orleans , who is
( ASIA )
plotting to assassinate Lincoln . Dara Horn
While the use of normal words makes this code seem easier to crack than the alphabetically based Confederate code, it was in fact far more difficult to decipher and far more efficient than the Southern one. Although the cipher's coding booklet fell into enemy hands on several occasions, and although many message were intercepted, the South never managed to decipher any version of this code. In fact, Southern desperation to decode this cipher was so intense that intercepted Northern messages were published in Southern newspapers, with an appeal to the public to try to crack the code. No one ever did.
KCZO OZHVVL YIWY TTFRCRK EEWPVZFX YWF UKA AR GELJWWYK 1862 VR KG AVUIKVL UI
FCFQGF TMJ SPE COWEM WA
SIPXRVT QAW WF RZAXKMGX BP ULA OFUWZEKI IIMTCWMBG NWZGFPG
(First two sentences of book description, in Confederate cipher)
THE CONFEDERATE CIPHER SYSTEM
While several local ciphers were used on a small scale in the South, the primary cipher used by the Confederacy during the Civil War was the Vigenere Tableau, also known as the Vicksburg Square . It was an alphabet substitution system, with a key phrase providing an additional layer of encryption. Messages were ciphered and deciphered using the Square, which was a chart with the English alphabet arranged horizontally and vertically along the top and left-hand side, with alphabets continued after each letter like this:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
a a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
b b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a
c c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b
d d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c
e e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d
f f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e
g g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f
h h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g
i i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h
j j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i
k k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j
l l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k
m m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l
n n o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m
o o p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n
p p q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o
q q r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p
r r s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q
s s t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r
t t u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s
u u v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t
v v w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u
w w x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v
x x y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w
y y z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x
z z a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y
Much to the South's detriment, only three key phrases were used with this Square throughout the war: "complete victory," "Manchester Bluff," and "come retribution." (The last of these was in fact not used until the final months of the war, though it appears earlier in the novel.) Messages were ciphered by lining up the letters of each word with the letters of the key phrase. One then finds the junction between the message's letter and the key phrase's letter on the Square (the message's letter on the left-hand side and the key phrase's letter on the top), and records the letter at their junction, as follows:
Message: h o w, i s, t o n i g h t, d i f f e r e n t, f r o m, a l l, o t h e r, n i g h t s
Key: c o m, e r, e t r i b u t, i o n c o m e r e, t r i b, u t i, o n c o m, e r e t r i
Cipher: j c i, m i, x h e q h b m, l w s h s d i e x, y i w n, u e t, c g j s d, r z k a k a
Deciphering the message entailed reversing the process by finding the cipher letter on the left-hand side of the Square and the key-phrase letter on the top side of the Square, and recording the letter at their junction. Some agents eased this process by separating words with commas or other punctuationa choice that ultimately made the code much easier to crack when such messages fell into enemy hands.
Despite the South's distinct advantage in many matters of espionage during the Civil War, this cipher system proved to be inefficient and often ineffective, since the slightest error (which anyone trying it will find difficult to avoid) can render a message illegible. One Confederate major, after trying for twelve hours to decipher a message containing an error, actually rode his horse around the Union formations on the battlefield to reach the the general who had sent the message and ask him in person what he was trying to say. The North soon was able to reverse-engineer this cipher and use it to their advantage.
Sources: William R. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States (1882); David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing (1967).
An interview with Dara Horn about The World To Come
We all know we're not supposed to tell a book by its
cover, but what on earth do you mean by "The World to Come"?
I've always been fascinated by the points in our lives where rational explanations fail us. The most obvious of these are death and birth: How could it be that a person who just existed suddenly doesn't anymore? And how could it be that a person who never existed suddenly does?
The World to Come is a phrase that means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean a life after death; to another, it implies an age of redemption; to someone else, it's simply the future in everyday life. This book suggests that all of those possibilities are actually more similar to each other than one might imagine.
This novel has much more of a mysterious, page-turning narrative element than your previous book. Where did that come from?
A few years ago, there actually was a theft of a Chagall painting from a museum in New York that took place during a singles' cocktail hour. There was an article about it on the front page of the New York Times. I read that article and just thought: what kind of person goes to an event at a museum and walks out with a million-dollar painting?
The story caught my eye for more personal reasons too. In my day job, I'm a student of Yiddish literature. Since it's a language that's spoken largely (though not entirely) by dead people, it's very rare that my scholarly life converges with the news. But when I read about this theft, I thought of how many of the authors I admire had had their works illustrated by Chagall, and I started wondering how he had known them.
What did you find out?
Mark Chagall's first job when he was a young man was as an art teacher at an orphanage outside of Moscow for children who had been orphaned by the pogroms in Russia in 1919, in which over 100,000 people were killedso many people that it was necessary to create orphanages for all the children who had lost their families. Nearly every person who taught at this particular orphanage with Chagall was a major avant-garde artist or writer, and they all lived there in faculty housing together, collaborating on everything from theater sets to children's books.
Der Nister, one of the Yiddish writers I was studying in my academic work, had been Chagall's housemate at this orphanage. The more I read about his life, the more the contrast between his life and his friend Chagall's astonished me. They had practically been roommates; both of them already had major artistic accomplishments as young men. Chagall even illustrated some of Der Nister's children's books. But while Chagall went on to a fabulous international career and comfortable life in Paris, Der Nister's life became one of horrible poverty and political oppression. He ultimately died in a gulag.
That's an interesting nonfiction storyand given your career as a scholar, you could easily have written it as nonfiction. What about it made you turn it into fiction?
Don't tell this to my doctoral committee, but I've always hated footnotes. Seriously, though, Chagall writes in his memoirs about how astonished he was by how these orphaned children "threw themselves at colors like wild beasts at meat." As a writer, I was intrigued by this idea of art as a kind of nourishing redemption. But the fates of the other artists Chagall worked with were quite different from his own. One night after a long day in the library researching Der Nister's life and work, I had a dream that he had actually survived the gulag, emerging years later. He went into the offices of various publishers to tell them who he was and that he was still here, but they all ignored him; none of them had even heard of him. I woke up and realized that the dream wasn't far from the truth. So I thought I would try to do something about it, to help bring him back to life. And I began to wonder what it is about art that makes it either last or disappearwhich is the larger question of what makes us decide what in our lives really matters.
And you were able to get all those themes into a novel? Where did all the other strands of the story come fromthe parts set in New Jersey and Vietnam?
There is often a several-decade gap between when one's school history lessons stop and one's newspaper reading begins. For me, and probably for a lot of people my age (I'm 28), this period is more or less the Cold War in general and the Vietnam War in particular. In studying this period on my own, what has amazed me is how there really is no agreed-upon narrative for it, even decades laterbecause so much of it is so embarrassing, based on all kinds of betrayals of trust in every possible direction, and not only the obvious ones. I had been to Vietnam as a tourist, and at one point I was in a car on the road from Da Nang to Hue, which goes through a tortuous mountain pass. I asked the driver who on earth would have built this ridiculous road, and he answered, "You." The road was built by the U.S. Army in 1965, in an effort to aid the South Vietnamese. Of course it became an easy site for ambushes by the Viet Cong, who were often tipped off by South Vietnamese spieswhich is the basis of one of the scenes in the book.
I think there's something about this kind of betrayal that's very soul-shaking, even in more minor cases. My own history gap ended in the early 1990s, when my public high school in New Jersey was suddenly flooded with dozens of Russian Jewish immigrants. My family's community had been active in the cause for Soviet Jewry, so it was a bit amusing to me when these kids arrived at my school and basically formed a gang. In the book, the main character as a teenager has a heartfelt, one-way correspondence with his Soviet bar mitzvah "twin," only to meet the guy in America two years later and discover that he's a thug. But there's a redemptive side to that story too. One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to explore the problem of trust, which haunts all of this historyincluding that of Chagall and his fellow artists. Trusting anyone is the most dangerous thing one can do, but it's also one of the only things that make life worth living..
What do you really think of Chagall?
I do admire his imagination. But despite having written a novel about him (or perhaps because of it), I find that I can't be his biggest fan. Chagall left the Soviet Union for good in the early 1920s and rose to tremendous fame, and now his work is thought of as the true vision of a lost world. But many of his fellow artiststhe writers whose works he illustrated, the actors and directors whose theater sets he designedreally decided to commit themselves to Soviet Jewish life by remaining in the Soviet Union and pursuing their art in Yiddish. And they paid an enormous price for that choice. By 1952, nearly all of them had been murdered by Stalin, and today almost no one has heard of any of these major talents. Knowing this, I find that I cannot look at Chagall's paintings without also seeing these might-have-beens, the other imaginations that are hidden behind his. The fact that his paintings are so joyously derived from an imagined world of might-have-beensthe man whose face might have been purple, the people who might have flown through the air and lived other livesmakes them very poignant for me, but not always in the way I think he intended.
Does the Yiddish and Hebrew literature you've studied have contemporary relevance? Does it have something to say to people who are not Jewish?
British literature has something to say to people who aren't British, doesn't it? Actually, I think Yiddish and Hebrew literature are surprisingly relevant to any modern reader. These are literatures where phrases in even the most modern stories echo with words going back to ancient times. Even in comedy, the writers are always aware that they can't escape the pastbut they are also aware that because of the arbitrary hatred of their neighbors, their own future might not exist. Each generation of writers in these languages is convinced it is the last. I think there's a tremendous resonance in that for modern readers everywhere. In modern life we are expected to pretend that there was never a past, and to pretend that there is always a future. It is tremendously powerful and ennobling to read a literature where no one ever pretends that a future is assuredwhere eternity is always breathing over your shoulder, waiting to see if you will notice.
Allegory in fiction has been out of fashion for some time. Would you say your work is allegorical? Are Chagall's paintings allegorical?
An allegory is usually a work where one thing (an ant, a grasshopper) equals one other thing (a hard worker, a time-waster), and that's the end of the story; there's only one way to interpret it. I don't think the book is allegorical, but I do think it's symbolic. A symbol is something that doesn't just represent one thing, but points to a larger constellation of meaning beyond the obvious. I don't think Chagall's paintings are allegorical, but I do think they're symbolicthough one of the ways I imagine his work in the book is that he never meant them to be.
The Ziskind siblings seem to be deeply, and even spiritually connected to one another. Can you explain this?
I was interested in exploring relationships between adult siblings, because I think it's often one of the most meaningful relationships we have as adults. There is something irreplaceable about having someone intractably in your life who has known you since you were a child. The Ziskind twins in the book are so close to each other that they rely on each other even for things they shouldn't. But my own three siblings and I are even closer than that. I speak to all three of them daily, and usually see at least one of them every day. We're close in other ways, too. All four of us are professionally creative - my sisters and I are all writers, and my brother is an artist and animator - and we are also very deeply involved in inspiring each others' work, even though our styles are vastly different. There are characters from my sister's novel who make cameo appearances in mine, and vice versa. I suppose the life I'm drawing from is a bit extreme, but I think all siblings, even as adults, inhabit a kind of world of their own.
What about romantic love? Did you set out to write a love story?
There are several love stories in the book, but what interests me about them isn't really love as much as a very specific aspect of love that also defines every other relationship in the book: trust. Falling in love with a stranger is easy; trusting a stranger is almost impossible. But love without trust isn't really love. In fact, even though this is a book built out of love stories, there is only one place in the entire novel where someone says "I love you." And he proves he doesn't mean itquite brutally and horrificallyat the bottom of the same page. Real love in this book starts with different words: "I trust you."
Your work has already found an unexpected audience among religious Christian readers. What do you think these readers are responding to in your work? Are they seeing things that secular readers don't see?
I think some people in the world see things that are not visible to the eye. That's true for religious people, but it's also true for scientists and artists. The book can touch people differently depending on their experience of life. Some might see an undercurrent of religious belief in the book; others might see an undercurrent of skepticism or betrayed hope. The two main characters in the book are twins, and even though they grew up together, their views of the world couldn't be more differentthe brother is a lonely man who only sees the world's triviality; the sister is an artist who sees patterns in their lives that her brother doesn't see. One of the beautiful things about literature is that we get to try on all these different ways of thinking. And each reader will make his own book out of the one in his hands.
At the end of the novel, instead of a conventional vision of the afterlife, you give us a very unconventional vision of life before birth. Where did that vision come from?
While I was finishing this book, I was expecting my first child, and I began thinking about a legend in the Jewish tradition: that before being born, each person is taught all of the secrets of the world, but just before their birth, someone puts a finger to their lips and whispers, "Don't tell the secrets." And at that moment, they forget everything they learned, and then they have to spend their entire lives trying to remember. At the end of my novel, I created a glimpse of this world before birth, where everyone is studying these secrets. Of course, now that my daughter is a few months old, I realize that the secrets that babies have really forgotten are just the secrets of how to sleep through the night!
Did you draw at all on religious traditions about the afterlife in this book? You seem to end up with a view that is not at all supernatural, but that according to your readers, has tremendous spiritual power. Is there any way to define the spiritual point of view in the novel?
In Judaism, the phrase "the world to come" actually refers to the end of days, when it is believed that the dead will be resurrected and various other divine promises fulfilled. But in the Hebrew bible there is no mention of an afterlife at all. Perhaps the closest it comes is in the book of Ezekiel, in which Ezekiel sees dry bones having their flesh restored and rising back up to life. There's something very compelling about that reversal of time, because it implies so many other thingsnot merely that the dead will rise again, but also that anything in our lives might be reversible.
I think that's a fantasy we all entertain at some point. In the novel there's a moment when a daughter asks her mother if she believes in reincarnation. The mother says no. She tells her daughter that to believe that your life is only a rehearsal, or that you will eventually have an infinite number of chances to get it right, would make living meaningless. But she does believe in a bond between the living and the dead. She tells her daughter that people who have passed away are in the same world as those in their families who haven't yet been born. In this world to come, as she sees it, the dead spend their eternity shaping the characteristics of their descendants.
That may sound like some kind of supernatural vision, but it's also the reality of genetics. The dead may never be revived, but every aspect of them is. Their dry bones live forever within us.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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