Philadelphia's "One Book, One Jewish Community" program officially kicks off Sunday with a discussion led by this year's selected author, Mitchell James Kaplan.
The Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership announced that Kaplan's first novel, By Fire, By Water, would be the focus of this year's program before it was even published in May.
That was quite a jump-start for a first-time author, Kaplan, 53, acknowledged in a phone interview from his home just outside Pittsburgh. Now in its fourth year, the "One Book" program includes dozens of events around the region over the course of the academic year and typically draws more than 10,000 participants, said program director Debbie Leon. That number could be even higher this year with Jewish communities in Delaware and Houston joining in for the first time.
By Fire, By Water takes readers to 15th-century Spain, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel are advancing on the Kingdom of Granada, and Christopher Columbus is searching for a way to fund his expedition. In the midst of this is Luis de Santangel, a royal chancellor whose curiosity about his Jewish past and growing disgust at the Inquisition puts everyone around him at risk of persecution.
Ironically, Kaplan, a Yale graduate who grew up in Los Angeles and Munich, said he never set out to write a "Jewish book." In an interview with the Jewish Exponent, he discusses how the novel came together. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q:Before you decided to become a novelist, you were writing and editing screenplays in California. You owned a large house and a private plane. What compelled you to give all that up to write a book, in Mount Lebanon, Pa., of all places?
A:"I always wanted to be a novelist from the time I was a kid. I loved dwelling in the fictional universes of the great books I read. It was not only a refuge for me, but a way of coming to terms with and understanding the world that I lived in.
"I never was comfortable in the film industry and I never wanted to be there. It was a total fluke. I was in Los Angeles for my sister's wedding and didn't have enough money to get back to France, where I had been living for seven years. Someone was friends with a Hollywood producer, who hired me as a gopher. I became friendly with a director. A lot of fluke things happened.
"With screenplays, my wife and I were trying to read producer's minds and make a product. That's the only way you make any money. I did learn a lot about what it is to structure a story. But it wasn't my ambition and it was not my culture.
"My writing of this book was a rebellion against this Hollywood culture where art is seen as merely entertainment. My starting point was the assumption that readers are capable of appreciating a story that has depth and intelligence. My goal was not merely to entertain, it was also to shed some light on what really happened.
"My children would say our standard of living has gone way down, but my wife and I feel much, much happier now. I feel like I'm doing what I should be doing."
What made you decide to write about conversos during the Spanish Inquisition?
"I was initially interested in writing about the background of Christopher Columbus. The story had never been told properly that Columbus was coming from a world that was destroying itself due to religious strife, ethnic strife; and he was sort of embarking on a voyage of hope away from that. I felt it was an apocalyptic moment in history, an extreme transition between the modern world and the Middle Ages. Then the conversos emerged as a central, dramatic pivot of the story.
"The conversos invented a kind of modern way of relating to the world and to God. They had to straddle different ethnic identities, religious identities. Doubt became a big part of their way of believing. I see a lot of reflection of today in the world of that time."
Tell us about your research for the book. How did you reconcile fact with fiction?
"The research and the writing happened at the same time, over six years. Almost all of the main characters are based on real people. I found a log of the sailors who sailed with Columbus. There was one man who stood out because he didn't have any function on a 15th-century sailing vessel. He was a translator from Hebrew to Arabic to Aramaic to Spanish. It became clear to me that Columbus thought he was going to terrestrial paradise. The translator, based on his language skills, must have grown up as a Jew in the Islamic Emirate of Granada. So that gave him an identity, and I worked backwards. I made up his aunt Judith, who ended up becoming a central character. To help shape her, I read narratives of real women who existed in the Middle Ages.
"For me, nonfiction is incomplete. It's like the bare-bones facts. To tell the story, you have to bring the characters to life. What interests me is how people experience history and not just the facts."
How much did your Jewish identity play into this book?
"It's from a Jewish point of view, definitely. I can't deny that. But I'm just a guy who happened to be Jewish contemplating this period in history and trying to get to the essence of it."
How have Christian readers reacted?
"Some of my first reviewers said in their reviews, 'I myself am a devout Catholic and I was shaken to read about such things.' I'm just so impressed with the fact that they are able to admit their church has made mistakes. A couple of extreme Catholics are still defending Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada. These mistakes that were made by Torquemada and Queen Isabel do not represent the proper interpretation of the Christian faith.
"People are people, whether they're Islamic or Christian or Jewish. You're going to have people who are power-hungry and are going to use religion for their purposes. That doesn't mean the religion is bad or doesn't teach sound morality. The same goes for Islam. A lot of people are misusing that religion today. There's a time when Islam was less guilty of that than Christianity, and it'll change again. Religions evolve, and the way people use religion changes. For most of history, Jews didn't have power so they weren't able to perpetrate this kind of crime in the name of their religion."
What are you hoping readers will get out of this book?
"I want them to get a better understanding of life and who we are, where we come from. That's what any novelist aspires to do. Great novels, they distill the essence of human experience. They help us to make meaning of our worlds, our lives, in an emotional way."
So, three communities have already named By Fire, By Water as the book to read this year. Where do you go from here?
"I'm just juggling a lot of things at the moment. I'm working on a second novel that has to do with the parting of the ways between the two sects of Judaism that survived the destruction of the Romans in the year 70 A.D. These subjects fascinate me, and I think they're very important."