Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview with Mitchell James Kaplan, Author of By Fire, By Water

Today I'm very excited to welcome Mitchell James Kaplan to A Bookish Affair!

1. How did you come up with the idea for By Fire, By Water? What interests you about the Spanish Inquisition?

Prosaically enough, the idea developed little by little as I sat in libraries reading. I didn't set out to write a book about the Spanish Inquisition. I became fascinated with all that was going on in Spain near the end of the fifteenth century – the Spanish “reconquest” of Islamic Granada; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; the Spanish Inquisition – and how it all tied in with Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World. As I read about these events and discovered the connections between them, the voices in my head started telling me: “Wait a second, this is not the way they taught it to you in grade school!” I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell these stories as accurately as possible, from the points of view of the people who actually lived and experienced them.

2. What was your research process like for this book?

The research went on simultaneously with the writing. The same thing, as it turns out, is happening with my second book, which is set in first-century Rome and Judaea. My brain isn't voluminous enough to hold all this information at once, so I have to do the basic reading first and then fill in innumerable details as I develop the story. I read books at home and in libraries, I visit the places where these stories took place (keeping in mind that, often, the architecture and even the landscapes have changed drastically), I look at paintings from the period, etc.

The first draft thus becomes an amalgam of story ideas and research. The challenge after that is to sift through it all, determine which pieces work and which don't, and find out how they all fit together. When I finish that process, I have a second draft. In the third draft, I flesh it out more thoroughly.
As I said, my research continues all the way through. Writing a good historical novel is a laborious and time-intensive.

3. What's the best thing about being an author? What's the most trying thing?

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by “being an author.” In my view, one is an author if one feels the need to write and acts upon that need. I don't know whether there's anything good or bad about it. It's like eating, breathing, or scratching an itch. It just has to happen.

Being a published author is a different matter. It's about receiving recognition for one's work. Unfortunately, one can be a great author and receive no recognition, or a lousy author and receive lots of recognition.

The best thing about getting published is that one's work suddenly starts to serve a purpose. The solitary sound of scratching an itch suddenly becomes music in other people's ears. The words on the page become bridges between minds. What I experience as the author becomes the experience of readers. We share these experiences, the lives of our characters. That is magical.

The most trying thing? Well, writing is hard. Juggling writing, living, and everything else that's expected of an author is even harder. But I'm not complaining. It is immensely gratifying and more than worth the effort.

4. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don't write for the marketplace. Write what you care passionately about. There will be other people out there who will also care.

It's much easier to sell work that fits in with so-called literary trends, or with real-world trends. But work that is written to meet the demands of the marketplace tends to be shallow and contrived. If you write about what you care about, you may find it harder to get your work published, but once it is published, people will sense your conviction and respond to your work much more powerfully.

5. What three literary characters would you bring with you to a deserted island? What three books would you bring with?

The people I would want to share a deserted island with are not necessarily the best literary characters. Great literary characters tend to be complex and tortured. Think Hamlet, King Lear, Raskolnikov, Anna Karenina, Harry Haller, Holden Caulfield. I care about them. I love them. But I don't think I'd want to share a deserted island with any of them!

Even lively, charming characters like Elizabeth Bennett probably wouldn't be good companions for me. First, I don't think Lizzy would like me too much. I'm no Darcy. And then, she's so much part of the fabric of Regency England, as we have inherited it, that it would be a sin to rip her from that fabric and drop her into a place so, shall we say, uncivilized.

Perhaps, if we go all the way back to one of our oldest books, the Book of Genesis, we can find the kind of strong, resilient, and loving characters who could survive and even thrive in such circumstances – Leah, Rebecca, Rachel. These women are smart and they find value in the simple things of life, survival, love, mothering, all of which would be essential on that deserted island. I'm pretty sure that, surrounded with these three women, I would become a polygamist – and, if I was very lucky, perhaps the founder of a civilization, as their husbands were. But I'm not so megalomaniacal as to actually hope for such things. I'm happy enough in my warm little suburban lair, assured of no significant role in history.

Three books. (I assume you mean three works of what we call “literature.” This would exclude the Encyclopedia Brittanica, for example.) I would bring the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey (bound together in one volume, so they count as one book), and the complete works of Shakespeare.

What do these three books have in common? Brilliant writing, great characters, timeless stories.
However, before boarding the plane (or ship?) for this deserted island, I would try to slip two additional tomes into the lining of my jacket or an inner pocket of my suitcase, hoping the deserted island customs inspector wouldn't find them: Dante's epic triptych (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) in one volume and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in another.

Unfortunately, these weighty tomes would create bulges. I would probably be caught, charged with the crime of possessing too many stories, and sentenced to... what? Life on a deserted island?

Ugh, those deserted island customs people are pesky, no? Thank you again, Mitchell!


  1. Thank you for interviewing one of my favorite people and authors! I adore Mitchell's writing and it was an added treat to read this interview.

    This is so true: "The solitary sound of scratching an itch suddenly becomes music in other people's ears. The words on the page become bridges between minds."

  2. I am just glad to see that Mitchell is indeed working on another novel, I've been waiting for two years!


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