A conversation with Mitchell Kaplan ~ author of By Fire, By Water
(For more information on the book and author please link to the preview/giveaway post).
How did you first learn about the story of Luis de Santangel, and what prompted you to write a novel about it?
The fact that Columbus’s first voyage from Spain to the New World, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the re-conquest of Granada all happened at the same time and place, I found intriguing. I learned that Columbus had lived, for a time, with the Duke of Medina-Celi, who was a business associate of Luis de Santangel, the chancellor of Aragon. I dug deeper and found that Santangel was the single individual most responsible for the royal decision to sponsor Columbus’s voyage, and that he was a converso – a Christian suspected by the Inquisition of secretly practicing the Jewish religion of his ancestors. Later, I discovered that Santangel was implicated in the murder of the first inquisitor in Aragon. This astonished me. Imagine if one of the most powerful men in America today, a man close to the president, was accused of murdering one of the most famous religious figures!
It became obvious to me that the issues of identity and territorial expansion which formed the backdrop for Columbus’s 1492 voyage of discovery were profoundly personal matters for the chancellor of Aragon. I did not choose to write about Luis de Santangel. He insisted I write about him.
Where did you conduct your research for the novel?
I traveled in Spain, of course. I looked at paintings in the Prado and throughout Europe. One learns a great deal from paintings, not just about details of dress and furniture but about how people held themselves, how they thought of themselves, how they related to other humans, to animals, and to God. I also looked at medieval books and manuscripts. Having studied Latin for three years in high school, I was able to read some of them.
I spent a lot of time in libraries. Some of the research, but not a great deal of it, was done online. I also spoke with specialists, for example, people who work in maritime museums and who could tell me what was involved in setting sail in a fifteenth-century ship.
Speaking of ships, I remember visiting, during a trip to Stockholm as a boy, a seventeenth-century ship that had recently been dredged up. The smell of tar, the cries of the gulls. I guess that was research, too – before the fact…
How did you find the process of writing a fictional story around historical events? Were you hindered by facts or inspired by them, or both?
Facts were and are an inspiration. I love the idea that in writing so-called fiction, I am actually getting closer to the truth. And I do believe that.
Truth is not just dates and so-called “facts.” In order to approach the truth – the truth of human experience, which is the kind of truth that matters most – we have to commune with the souls of the people who made our world. That sounds mystical, but I don’t mean it that way. I am talking about a process that involves reason and imagination, working together – just like science.
The character of Judith Migdal did not exist in history. What made you decide to incorporate her into the novel? Did her story go where you expected when you set out?
Her nephew existed. Columbus refers in his diaries to “the Jew” Luis de Torres. We know that de Torres received a hasty baptism prior to the departure of Columbus’s ships, because the ships were considered Spanish soil and no Jews were allowed to remain on Spanish soil.
As Columbus’s translator, de Torres spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish. Many Jews had fled from Christian Spain to Granada following anti-Jewish riots, so it seemed reasonable to imagine that de Torres grew up in a Spanish-speaking refugee household in the Moorish kingdom. He would thus have learned all three languages. His name there would have been Migdal, the Hebrew equivalent of the Spanish word Torres (“tower”).
Initially, I thought my book would focus on Luis de Torres – and indeed, my first draft attempted to do so. But I found that if I wanted to make him the age of a sailor in 1492 – about twenty, at most – and if I wanted to develop the story behind the events of 1492… well, I would end up writing about a boy growing up in a very circumscribed world.
While this was certainly an interesting proposition, I wanted to tell a bigger story, the story of the world of the adults and what was happening to it. The person caring for Levi Migdal and the tribulations that person experienced as a result of her society’s decline ultimately provided a larger and more textured canvas. I found myself thinking about Judith, concerned about her, intrigued by her.
What is the most misunderstood fact about 15th century Spain?
People want to paint Columbus as a good guy or a bad guy, as a romantic visionary or a colonist seeking to exploit and rob Native Americans. Like Isabella, Ferdinand, Torquemada, and Luis de Santangel, Columbus was a man of his time – complex, ambitious, and incapable of seeing all human beings as equally deserving of God’s love – but he was not responsible for everything that happened as a result of his discoveries, any more than Wagner is responsible for what Hitler did with his music.
How do the various religious communities interact in the novel, and how does that compare to the present day?
It is often impossible to separate religious zeal from economic and territorial appetite. That was true then, and it is true today. Then as now, too, religious faith was a powerful force for social cohesion, spiritual comfort, and artistic expression.
But religions evolve. That is one of the underlying points of By Fire, By Water. In particular, Christianity in all its flavors has changed tremendously since the Middle Ages – and, for that matter, since Puritan times in America. Most Christians today would hardly recognize their faith in that of Torquemada, Isabella, or Jonathan Edwards. In my view, this should be a point of pride for Christians, and for Jews and Muslims as well. The ultimate truths have not changed, but our understanding of them has.
The relations between the three great monotheistic faiths have undergone change no less than their self-definitions. Many today believe that Christianity and Judaism are natural allies, while Islam and Judaism are natural enemies. People from the fifteenth century, visiting our world today, would find it difficult to understand such allegiances.
Did your opinions about the major historical figures involved, Columbus, Isabella, Ferdinand, Torquemada, change as you were conducting your research? How do you feel about them now?
After I finished my second draft, I gave it to a dear friend who happens to be a prominent screenwriter. I didn’t realize he had written a screenplay long before about Isabella and Ferdinand. What astonished me was how differently he perceived the Catholic Monarchs based on the research he had done. I might add that he himself is a devout Catholic, so he approached them from a different starting point.
His feedback was extremely helpful, not so much in the particulars but because it made me realize that my perceptions had been colored by my prejudices. I decided it was imperative that I do my best to get under the skin of Isabella, Ferdinand, and Torquemada, to try to see the world as they did. It was never my intent to write a novel about good versus evil. Quite the contrary: I wanted to show how people from different social milieus and educations, all striving earnestly to do good, could become destructive and morally blind.
Of course, Luis de Santangel was my principal character, so to a great extent, the story had to be colored by his point of view. But I wanted that point of view to be complex and nuanced rather than “heroic” in the Hollywood sense.
As for Columbus… when I wrote about him, I felt I was writing about myself. When I walked away from the life I had built in California, working in Hollywood, I was embarking on a frightening journey for no reason other than the irrational conviction that it was something I had to do.
You left your Hollywood life behind when you moved to Pennsylvania to work on your novel—what made you turn from screenwriting to fiction?
Actually, it’s the other way around. Since I was young, I knew I would write novels. Reading Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Marquez and others in my early teens sealed the deal. Typically, I read all the works of every writer I liked. I got into a lot of trouble for missing P.E., but the instructor always knew where to find me – in the library.
Screenwriting was never an ambition. It just happened to me. As soon as I could get away from it, I did. That said, I did learn a great deal from many people in the film industry.
By Fire, By Water has certain cinematic qualities—dramatic force, richly detailed settings, evocative dialogue. Are these lessons you carried over from your film work? What other lessons did you bring to fiction writing?
Borges once said that all art aspires to the condition of dreams. I have vivid dreams, both when I’m sleeping and when I’m writing. I see everything in the scenes I write, as I write them. Sometimes I pick up odors, sounds, and tactile sensations as well. During the revision process, I remove details when I fear they might slow the story or reduce the narrative tension. I suspect a great deal of the drama and sense-appeal come to me from the id, or outer-space, or wherever dreams come from.
In a screenplay, the writer provides as little description as possible. It is the job of the set designer, art director, wardrobe consultant, music supervisor, composer, and director to come up with the visual and auditory components. A screenplay is story, characters, and dialogue. In these three areas, I believe my experience as a screenwriter did have a huge effect on how I approached the writing of By Fire, By Water.
In Hollywood, I also learned what I did not want to do as a writer of fiction. I did not want to treat my readership with contempt. I wanted to assume that my readers would be intelligent, curious, and sensitive. This is an assumption very few filmmakers can afford to make about their audience.
What is your next project?
The book I am currently researching and starting to write is set in Rome and Judea after the crucifixion of Jesus. It examines the moral and social implications of polytheism and various forms of monotheism prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the birth of post-Temple Judaism and Christianity. As in By Fire, By Water, I want to delve into these questions with as little prejudice as possible, exploring the minds and hearts of the great, misunderstood characters who gave us our world: the emperor Nero, Saint Paul, Saint James, the High Priests in Jerusalem, Yohanan ben Zakai. The Jewish sister of Jesus and a Roman woman, who becomes a Jewish follower of Jesus, are also major characters.
I do think this sounds exciting, we are looking forward to your next book Mitchell – Thank you so much for sharing with us!
*this Q&A is credited to the publisher - Other Press
And now for our giveaway winner via random.org
Our lucky winner is …
A favorite, upbeat, and fun blogger - Yeah Kelly!
I will be contacting you via email. Please respond within 72 hours - to this post and get back to me, with your mailing information. I will then forward it to the publisher.
For those of you who did not win but would like to purchase the book - this is the preview/giveaway post link for By Fire, By Water. As well as the Amazon purchasing links for - US/UK/Canada.
The is a softbound book, and it is gorgeous with old fashioned scalloped edges on the pages. John loved the book giving it 4 stars in his review.
A big thank you to Other Press. They look to be a small publishing company, which have a number of interesting literary titles available, and who have been a pleasure to work with!
Have a wonderful Thursday!