My guest today, Michelle Cameron, has written a beautiful book about the Ashkenaz, the Jews in medieval France. She creates an evocative tapestry of a way of life that was constantly under threat from outside because of ignorance, superstition, and greed. Her characters are complex and sympathetic, and she has achieved a remarkable feat: a panoramic view of the time through the experiences of a single family. I asked her to talk about the process here, and share some of the challenges and rewards of taking on such an ambitious project.
So I had a bookended tale to tell. For a while I wondered, should I write two books? But how then would I communicate Meir’s importance to the Jews of his era? And since I was trying to convey the decline in Jewish status that took place over Meir’s lifetime – how could I do that without writing about all of Meir’s life?
Furthermore, I was telling Meir’s story from the perspective of a fictional wife, whom I called Shira. Now, it’s clear that Meir must have had a wife – every Jewish man had a duty to marry and have children – but, this being the Middle Ages, his actual wife remained nameless and unknowable, except through the lens of imagination. The first chapters of the novel begin when Shira was a mere child. This gave me a period of some seventy years to encompass.
The early years, which included Shira’s unusual education, her imagined relationship with the novel’s villain, and her meeting and falling in love with Meir, almost wrote themselves. The Paris section, where the young couple married and started a family, flowed effortlessly. The following chapters, about the Church’s charges against the Talmud, the disputation that took place in the royal court, and the heartbreaking result, when every volume of the Talmud in Paris was burned at the stake, had more than enough inherent drama to keep the story moving.
But then came the Rothenberg years and I struggled to find a way to hold both the reader’s attention and my own.
Since there was no external conflict during these years, I decided there needed to be conflict in Meir and Shira’s domestic life. I gave Meir an interfering mother, who was a lot of fun to write. Meir’s views about women were, well, medieval. He wrote about women who tried to take part in religious ceremonies that they had no right to, while inappropriately decked out in jewelry. I brought this arcane bit of reference to life during their son’s circumcision, provoking a fight between Meir and his domineering mother.
A book containing the surviving fragments of Meir’s writings was an invaluable resource. In them, Meir wrote how the age of ten was not too young to marry, as his own daughter had done so. My eldest son was preparing to go off to college as I wrote this section, and I projected my dread of the impending empty nest onto Shira, who opposed their daughter’s wedding. During this era, one way a woman could rebel against her husband was by refusing to visit the ritual baths after her menses. Shira, like other so-called rebellious wives, refused her husband his conjugal rights for a short period of time.
But while these inner conflicts helped tell Meir and Shira’s quieter lives, this was a book about the growing anti-Semitism in medieval Europe. One of the pivotal episodes of blood libel took place in Lincoln during Meir’s lifetime, but historically he had nothing to do with it, and I couldn’t justify placing him in the midst of the crisis. Nor was this an event that could be told well second hand. But Shira was not bound by the constraints imposed by Meir’s real life. So I invented a reason for her to travel to Lincoln.
As I wrote this novel, I learned how to slide past decades in a manner that wouldn’t disconcert the reader. To get Meir and Shira out of their fifties and into their seventies, I concocted a passage that spoke of their children and grandchildren, their joys and sorrows: “My grandsons were sent to distant cities to study, my granddaughters betrothed to scholars and merchants. I danced at their weddings and their b’nai mitzvah, my head spinning from the watered wine which was all my aged stomach could handle.” But in that same section of the book, I foreshadowed the mounting threat of increased anti-Semitism: “…my heart sank as I realized how much more restricted we Jews had become. This feeling against the Jews was forming a noose about our necks.”
So the third quarter of the book became a personal picture of Jewish existence in the Middle Ages. And now I was ready to take up the dramatic story of the end of Meir’s life – the attempt to escape a tyrant king, which would end in imprisonment and a resolute stance against ransom.
Many historical novels rely on external conflict as their motor. Wars, court intrigue, threat of everything from poverty to persecution, move these books along. Yet what gives these events life is how well the author communicates the interior conflict of the book’s main characters – their reactions to what is happening around them. Because my novel described a whole life, it needed more personal, domestic conflict than those that focus on a specific episode of drama in a life. But all historical novels must convey the personal struggle amid the external one, to make their readers feel empathy for their characters and thereby gain insight into the overall historical epoch.