I am honored to have been chosen as part of Michelle Cameron's blog tour, stemming from her very recent publication of The Fruit of Her Hands. The heroine of the book was the wife of a rabbi named Meir, about whom nothing at all is known, which meant that Ms. Cameron could do a lit of "inventing"(that sounds familiar!) and she decided to write about her, and the lives lived by Jews in medieval France. As many readers today can probably imagine, life for Jews in medieval France could hardly have been an easy one. But then, until almost yesterday, in the scheme of things, life for Jews anywhere could hardly have been easy. In some places, it still isn't, though I think, slowly, people are beginning to understand that just because we have neighbors who pray differently, or have a different color of skin, or speak a different language, or maybe are gays, lesbians, etc., are people like ourselves, with joys, sorrows, and problems, just as we have. But it hasn't been easy. For this reason, and many others, I am absolutely delighted that Ms. Cameron chose my blog as part of her blog tour. Her writing journey must have been quite exciting, and also at times, difficult, just as my writing journey has been and continues to be. So, with that, let me welcome Michelle Cameron,and begin this interview. I hope everyone enjoys reading what she has to say.
1. First, tell me something about yourself and your background. How did you come to write The Fruit of Her Hands? Does it relate to any previous writing you've done?
Anne, first of all, thanks for inviting me to your blog today!
My background: I’m a writer and a poet who holds down a day job as creative director in a digital agency. I’m married, with two college-aged sons, living in New Jersey.
I came to write The Fruit of Her Hands after my previous publication, In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel about William Shakespeare, which was published in 2003 by a small literary press. I was looking for a new project and was digging into my family tree to look up an entirely different person, the woman I had been named for, when I stumbled across an article about Meir of Rothenberg.
My mother had always said that we could trace our roots back to the 1200s, and here was proof of that. But beyond that, the more I read about Meir, the more convinced I became that his story was perfect for a novel.
Because I had just written a successful verse novel, I tried writing the book in that genre. But it didn’t agree with me - and it fought back when I tried to shape it as a series of letters or diary entries. The material dictated that this be a full-blown historical novel. When I finally gave it to it, the writing began to flow.
2. Was there anything special about this person that drew you to writing her story?
As I said above, the first person I was going to write about was not Shira, but Meir. But, from a 21st Century woman's perspective, the idea of writing a novel centered about a 13th Century Talmudic scholar and renowned rabbi was, well, daunting. I needed to find my way into the story through a character I could relate to.
In the Middle Ages, women are not part of the historical record, with a few notable exceptions. I knew Meir had a wife, of course, because he had at least one son and daughters. She would have been by his side throughout all of the events he witnessed. And, it was a terrific opportunity for me as a historical novelist - because nothing at all was known about her personality, her life, even her name. I got to invent everything about her - while still remaining true to the events that would have had a great impact on her life, as well as her husband's.
3. What kind of research did you have to do, in order to write the book? How long did the research take? Was it difficult for you?
When I started my research, I knew very little about the time period or about the lives of Jews during the 1200s. I started by finding out everything I could about Meir himself. From there, I located books and articles that allowed me to learn about life during the Middle Ages in general, and the Jews of the period in particular.
There was one book in particular that was invaluable - a two-volume compilation by Irving Agus that included every letter Meir wrote that survived to modern times, as well as scholarly essays on his contributions to Judaism. This was a difficult book to obtain - it was out of print, and the only libraries that seemed to have it were rabbinical schools. But my husband, who was tireless on my behalf, finally located a copy on eBay.
While I devoted a number of months to research before starting to write, I constantly had to go back to the books and the Internet to find out particulars as I was working on the novel itself, things as varied as birth customs, superstitions, and how to make ink. I love the research part of historical writing - it always thrills me to learn something I never knew before, and to be able to work it into the book so that it seems perfectly natural.
4. Aside from the heroine, was there anyone in particular you identified with? Had trouble identifying with? Of those who you had trouble identifying with, or liking, how did you deal with this in your writing?
Because I was writing about men who actually existed - there are only a few fictional characters among the men - it really wasn't as much a case of identifying with them as understanding their motivations. Nicholas Donin, for instance, the villain of the novel, performed terrible acts against his own people. Knowing that he had been excommunicated from the Jewish community, however, gave me the ability to understand him, and so I was able to draw him as a charismatic fanatic, someone whose ultimate loneliness drove him to betray his Jewish roots.
As I read Meir's letters, I found a man of great common sense and wisdom, but also someone who was shaped by his time. He did not like women being involved in certain religious customs, and this gave me the insight I needed to create tension between him and his wife throughout their lives together. Yet I also understood why, despite this, she loved him so much. He was an admirable character - one I’m truly proud to call my ancestor.
Nor did I necessarily identify with all of the women. I believe conflict is integral to fiction, so even in the women I created, I included some whom I wouldn't like if I met them in real life. Shira’s mother-in-law is a great example of that.
I will say, though, I enjoyed creating some of the less commendable characters. I find it fascinating, even cathartic, to give one of my less-likable protagonists the scope to behave badly.
5. Now that you have written and published The Fruit of her Hands, and it's out there in book stores, you do you feel?
Oh, it's marvelous! I remember the first time I saw the book sitting on a shelf with the other new releases - it was such an amazing moment. I hate to gush about it, but it really is a long-deferred dream come true for me.
6. And finally, being a writer, I am sure you have some future projects in mind. Could you tell us a little about anything you may have in mind?
A friend of mine in my writing group advised me to just keep writing as I looked for an agent (and then as my agent looked for a publisher), and since both that combined with the publishing process took more than two years, I am well on my way with the next book.
While Shira is in despair in one part of The Fruit of Her Hands, she takes comfort in reciting the psalm about "By the waters of Babylon," where the Jewish exiles of Babylon cried out for their lost home. That inspired me to look into the story of the exiles, and my next novel begins with the destruction of the First Temple and ends in the years after the exiles are permitted to return to Judea, having been freed by Cyrus of Persia.
Wow! What an interview! I think I will go out and buy this book, and I hope, for Michelle's sake, a lot of other people do, too. It also sounds to me like her next book will be equally exciting! Michelle,, I'm wishing you the best of everything in your writing and elsewhere, in the future. And when you finish that next book, I will be more than happy to host another blog interview with you!