I’ve got a treat here today: an interview (conducted via email) with award-winning author, Ruchama King Feuerman. Her latest book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, just came out in September as an ebook. Recently, she signed a contract to expand the release to paperback. I became acquainted with Ruchama through Tablet Magazine online, where both of us have published essays. She was gracious enough to send me a copy of her new book and even more gracious to answer a few questions the novel left me with.
R.K. – In your first book, Seven Blessings, the central figure is a very strong female character. In this new book, you primarily follow two male, unmarried characters. What was that like for you as a married woman?
R.K.F. – I prefer writing from the male point of view. This way I don’t worry about slippage, about parts of my personality leaking into my characters, it’s just cleaner — what’s me is me, and what’s them is them. I feel much freer to invent and have fun when I write as a man. I do tend to prefer singles maybe because they are inherently dramatic. The dating, the trying to meet someone. It’s so much more than boy meets girl, especially when it’s overlaid within a religious framework. It’s lineage meets lineage, destiny meets destiny. There are so many moving parts, so much depth and drama that is staked on these outcomes.
R.K. – What kind of research did you do to flesh out the character of Mustafa, particularly in regard to his physical disabilities and how he is treated by members of his community?
R.K.F. – I started writing without research, but at one point I went into Barnes and Noble and took out maybe 16 books on Islam and Arabic communities and started poring through. Along the way I found a paper on how the deformed are treated in Islamic societies, and stumbled on a memoir or book about Arab menial workers in Israel. I googled a lot and spoke with all the Arab men and women I knew: my children’s barber, Waleed, Ali the computer guy, Yusef, my obstetrician. Others. It also helps that my mother is from Casablanca and I asked her a lot of questions, especially about the food. At one point I called up a few Arab construction workers in Israel and asked if they’d call me back, but not surprisingly, none of them did.
R.K. – Your style has been compared by others to Jane Austen’s. I’ve always assumed what they meant is that you expose the faults as well of the strengths of your heroes and heroines. Personally, I’d describe your style as more of a literary “Speaker of the Dead” in the sense meant by Orson Scott Card where a very 3-dimensional portrayal of a person makes them more sympathetic, not less. In fiction, it makes your characters unusually believable.
How did you come to favor this style, and how do you practice it without exposing your protagonists’ weaknesses so much that you lose the sympathy of the readers?
R.K.F. – Thanks for the compliment! I’m always trying to get deeper into my characters. When I find myself getting stuck or bored with them, I ask, what is it that my character doesn’t want to know about him or herself? What feeling is she keeping at a distance? That helps. But I don’t have any conscious method. Or maybe – sometimes I’ll read a great author and see how she entered her character, and I’ll deconstruct how she did it, sentence by sentence. Then, when I’m giving a writing workshop I’ll pattern an exercise based precisely on that writer’s method. It’s amazing how when people follow the exercise, they’ll produce their most vivid work. So maybe all that craft work I do when teaching rubbed off on me.
About losing sympathy. One of the reasons I like to read fiction is for insight, to learn things about myself in an experiential way, something a textbook or even therapy couldn’t give me. So I guess I feel even if ugly stuff is revealed about a character, if it rings true and it’s complex and readers can glimpse their own waywardness, their dark parts, then that makes the story that much more delicious. Because we all want to be visible, even if just to ourselves. When I read a book, I’m always stopping at certain parts, thinking – would I have reacted that way? Or have I felt that way?
R.K. – When reading In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, I kept thinking, “Ruchama’s going to offend many readers because of her sympathetic portrayal of Mustafa, and she’s going to offend some readers because there are too few other sympathetic Arab characters!” I myself am having trouble separating my opinions of the book based on its literary quality vs. its political content.
Were you able to write your novel without consideration of how people’s political baggage would affect their reactions to the characters, or did you make conscious literary choices based on these anticipated reactions?
R.K.F. – Just before the book came out, I quipped to an editor, “I’ve written a book that’s going to offend everyone.” But I was joking, I didn’t really believe that at all. Much to my surprise I have found people squarely on the right and on the left who seem offended by my novel. Luckily, most of the people are in the middle, intrigued, taken with my characters, their struggles, just the way I wanted. Or why say ‘luckily’? People have a right to their opinions, their take. I’m learning to develop hippo skin, not care so much.
The thing is, if I made unsympathetic Arab characters (and plenty of grossly unsympathetic Jewish characters make their appearance, too) it was for reasons of plot. I needed to give a justification for what would make a devout Arab Muslim take that first step, take that first bus into a Hassidic neighborhood to seek out a Jew. He would have to be desperate, and so I created a society that rejected him thoroughly. As for having the gall to create a sympathetic Arab, I have no patience with that. To say that every human being carries a spark of Divine Presence is hardly new. Though maybe in Israel, where there has been so much blood shed, we need to develop a kind of holy imagination to see that spark.
R.K. – A lot of books flop for me at the ending, but my favorite part of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist is the ending — I had to stay up way past 11 p.m. despite an early carpool run the next morning because I just had to finish. You provided enough resolution to satisfy readers without creating a pat, predictable, or clicheed cap on the rest of the book. What advice do you have for writers about wrapping up a work of fiction?
R.K.F. – All I know about an ending is that it has to echo inside you. It should have a bit of eternity in it.
If you want to learn more about Ruchama, her books, or her writing classes, visit her website here.