Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Guest Blogger Michelle Cameron on fictionalizing her family's Jewish history in her new novel

Here's why I love Twitter. I find an interesting group of writers, jump in on the conversation, and sooner or later, one of the group and I discover, Hey, we live five miles apart! Which is exactly what happened when I "met" Michelle Cameron there last winter. Then we connected in person at a nearby book festival. Michelle's novel, out this month, is The Fruit of Her Hands (Simon & Shuster), and it's getting nice reviews.

Please welcome Michelle Cameron.

I’m a writer of Jewish-themed books. My debut historical novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, is the story of Shira of Ashkenaz, the devout wife of a renowned rabbi who confronts rising anti-Semitism in medieval Europe. My second novel, now with my agent, takes place during the Judean exile in ancient Babylon. And I’m researching a third, set during the Maccabean era (think Chanukah).

So you may be drawing some conclusions about me: That I’m probably religious myself. Or, if I’m not observant in the wig-wearing, don’t-drive-on-the-Sabbath Orthodox kind of way, I’m definitely an active member of a synagogue. You may think that if I came to your house, you would want to ask me if I kept kosher before bringing out the coffee and cake.

But you would be wrong.

Hurriedly – because I don’t want anyone (especially not potential readers!) to get the wrong impression – I'll add that I deeply admire and even envy people who have strong religious convictions. Having studied their personalities in the guise of my protagonists, I understand the spiritual well from which they draw strength and meaning. But my own relationship with my religion and that unknowable conception called God is considerably less defined than that of my characters.

So, why write “Jewish-themed” books? Why not just historical novels?

One answer is that, whether I am devoutly Jewish or not, it is my heritage. I am descended from a long line of rabbis, all the way back to the 1200s. Over the generations, my family experienced discrimination and suspicion from their Gentile neighbors, and sought to escape it by taking part in the great Jewish migration from France and Germany to Russia and Poland. Many fled pogroms, immigrating to America. Others helped drain the swamps and build the first kibbutzim in early 19th Century Palestine. And about half of my mother’s family perished in the Nazi camps.

With a family background like that, what else would speak so clearly to me and mean so much? If the old writer’s dictate, “write what you know," is valid, then that's what I am doing. These are the family stories I heard while sitting at my mother’s table

Another answer is my somewhat unique education. I know my Jewish history. My mother, a fervent Zionist, moved us to Israel when I was just turning 15. In an Israeli high school, I got a heady dose of Israeli history all the way back to the Bible, which we also had to study seriously.

But perhaps what really moves me to write about Jewish conflicts and characters is the nature of the Jewish religion itself. In The Fruit of her Hands, from early childhood Shira is drawn to learning Talmud, despite its being forbidden to women at that time. One of her greatest joys is when she can study with her father and then her husband, and she passes on that passion to her own daughters. Studying the great Jewish questions is a life-long endeavor in which there are no fixed answers.

There is an ethical base to the Jewish religion which resonates with me as well. One of my regrets is that the concept of “tikkun olam” – repairing the world through your ethical actions, a concept which I try to embody in my own life ― was anachronistic to the Middle Ages. So I had to edit out all references to it. But the spirit of being able to heal the world through charity and deed is still very much a part of the novel.

In one part of the novel, my heroine, Shira, wonders why she could not give up her Judaism in the face of unrelenting persecution. But then she remembers all of the wonderful, warm, family times, in which religion played such a significant part, and she realizes these are the moments “that give her life shape and meaning.” In writing The Fruit of Her Hands, I was writing a part of my family’s story and giving voice to their unwavering commitment to the Jewish faith.

[Notes from Lisa: To be entered in the book give-away, leave a comment and a way to reach you - email address or link to a site where you can be contacted. (You must have a North American postal address for shipment.) Contest ends midnight PDT, September 29.

You can also ask Michelle a question in the comment section (today only) and she'll drop by to answer it.

If you can't wait, by all means, order your own copy of her new book. If you live in New Jersey, you can probably catch Michelle at a reading or discussion event soon.]


Lisa Romeo said...

To win a copy, leave a comment by Sept. 29 (can ship to North America only). Please leave email or other contact link.

Beth Wellington said...

Nice blog. Do you know when your interview w. Grace will be up? I'd like to link to it...

Lisa Romeo said...

Thanks, Beth.
The interview with Grace Bauer, about guest-editing the baby boomer issue of Prairie Schooner, should be up on Tuesday, 9/29.
Thanks in advance for the link.

Carol Berg said...

I'd love to win this!!!!

These are such great give-aways. Thanks again, Lisa.

Melody Miller Sokolow said...

Inspiration! That's what I need. Coming from similar background as Sue William Silverman.