Eva Etzioni-Halevy is Professor Emeritus of Political Sociology at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and the author of two novels about women in the Bible: THE SONG OF HANNAH (Plume/Penguin, 2005) and THE GARDEN OF RUTH (Plume/Penguin, December 2006). Find out more about Eva at www.evaetzionihalevy.com
Q: Eva, your life story is a fascinating one. You were born in Austria before World War II, your parents fled to Italy to escape the Nazis, then spent time in an Italian concentration camp and in hiding. Then, you emigrated to Palestine. You must have experienced many dramatic and life threatening moments before you were even a teenager. Have you ever considered writing about your life story in a novel or memoir? (Because I would buy it!)
A: Unfortunately, I am indeed a child of the Holocaust in the sense that I was “there” at the time, and by the grace of God, I was rescued from many life threatening incidents, particularly from being sent by the Nazis to the death camps. Not surprisingly, the Holocaust played a large role in shaping my personality and my identity.
Be blessed, dear Suzanne, for your willingness to buy my memoir about those years. But in spite of the part the Holocaust played in turning me into what I am, or perhaps because of it, I decided never to write about my experiences during that time. I have always felt that I not could do justice to this horrific theme. Instead, what I went through then spurned me to explore the even deeper roots of my Jewish identity by delving into the world of the Bible and bringing it alive for modern readers.
Q: What do you see as the influences on your writing?
A: It is expected of writers to be able to point to something that influenced their writing, but much as I try, I cannot think of anyone or anything specific. When I was a child, my parents encouraged me to become an avid reader, and this was the prologue for everything else. I made the transition to writing on my own. For me, voracious reading was the basis of writing, and it may be so for others as well. Of course there was no television at the time, which made it a lot easier.
If I were to turn this experience into advice for aspiring writers, I would say: Switch off the TV and read, read, read!
Q: After years of academic writing and research in your career as a professor of Sociology, how did your interest originate in writing your debut novel, THE SONG OF HANNAH?
A: After all those years of academic writing, I felt a strong urge to burst out into a completely new direction, and give vent to a totally different side of my personality. I wanted to write something that people would not have to read for their coursework, but would want to read for simple enjoyment.
I believe I have succeeded in doing so, that I have written a novel for light entertainment, which is yet faithful to the spirit of the Bible. It is a tale of passionate scorned love, of betrayal and revenge, but also of redemption through feminine compassion and friendship. Although it is a biblical novel it is a gripping story with several twists.
What makes me particularly happy is that many readers told me that for them, THE SONG OF HANNAH was a real page turner: once they began reading the book they could not put it down.
Best of all: quite a few women readers confessed that they related it to their own life experiences.
Having said all that, the question still remains of why I decided to write this particular story, rather than any other.
The truth is that THE SONG OF HANNAH was sitting inside me for years before I began writing. It is based on the story (that opens the book of I Samuel) about this man, Elkanah and his two wives: Pninah, who had many children, and Hannah, who was initially barren, but her husband loved her. Therefore Pninah provoked her rival to make her angry, so she cried and would not eat. Eventually she prayed in the Temple and was granted the son she craved for: Samuel, who became a renowned prophet and leader.
Every year I heard the story being read on the High Holidays in the synagogue, and paradoxically what attracted me to it is not that I found it entertaining, but that I found it deeply troubling.
What troubled me was that the Scripture shows much sympathy for Hannah, the barren woman, but no sympathy at all for Pninah, the unloved woman. Hannah is presented as the saintly, aggrieved one; Pninah as the one who aggrieves her. Surely, I said to myself, the unloved one must have been deeply injured, also. Yet, she is not allowed to give voice or tears to her anguish. It is this sense of the injustice done to Pninah that led me to identify with her, and prompted me to take up her cause in a novel.
I could not give voice only to Pninah, without giving voice to Hannah as well. Both women underwent shattering experiences and I had no doubt that they would both react in shattering ways. In fact, if I could give The Song of Hannah a subtitle, I would call it: A Barren Woman Shatters Heaven, an Unloved Woman Shatters the Earth. The novel is the story of how they did so.
Q: How has your career in academia helped to prepare you for writing fiction?
A: The transition from academic writing, which is analytical, to writing fiction, which is more imaginative, was a bit like migrating into an unfamiliar foreign country. I was totally unprepared for it, and it took quite a while before I found my way (and my feet) in it.
Q: Have you enjoyed the process of writing a novel?
A: I have thoroughly enjoyed the writing.
But what people outside the trade may not realize, and what I did not realize myself at the beginning, is, that the writing itself is only part of the endeavor of getting a novel into the hands of readers. Alongside the writing there is the re-writing, which is the most arduous element of the whole. Then there are all the hurdles to be overcome on the way to publication, namely finding a good agent and a good publisher. And finally there is the aim of getting people interested in one’s work.
Not surprisingly, my favorite step in this long process has been the writing itself, and to some extent the rewriting The rest I have been taking in stride because of my very strong urge of reaching out to people and getting them to read my novels.
Q: Did you use some of the same research skills that you used in writing for academia?
A: Certainly my academic research skills came in handy. But although I invested no less research in my biblical novel writing than I did in my academic writing, there was a decisive difference between the two: The research for my academic books had to be shown off through a large number of footnotes and references. The Research for the biblical fiction had to be concealed, so that the reader would be unaware of how laborious a process it was. The two types of research also have something in common, though: in both cases, mistakes have to be shunned like the plague.
Q: How has it been to go through the publishing process with American publishers–from queries, agents, proposals, synopsis, completed manuscript, etc.– when your home is in Israel? Is the market for your book aimed at readers in the United States?
A: Although my journey to publication was tortuous, I have been very fairly treated: As a complete outsider, with no connections at all, I did find a wonderful agent and the best possible editor and publisher.
My book is indeed aimed particularly (but not only), at readers in the United States. So the greatest difficulty I have been facing is that of writing for readers in a country, in which I do not reside, as I live in Israel. This is a constant setback for me in comparison to other writers of novels on similar topics.
At the same time, I could not write biblical novels, whose plots are set in The Holy Land, without actually living in that land and deriving inspiration from it. This is an advantage that in some measure counterbalances the geographical distance from my readers.
Q: How have you promoted your book?
A: I have been trying to promote THE SONG OF HANNAH in a variety of ways, primarily through book tours and media interviews. We live in a world in which publicity is the lifeblood of book circulation. Without it, a writer might as well be (metaphorically speaking) dead.
Q: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
A: I plan to continue writing light entertaining biblical novels for the foreseeable future. I have a new such novel coming out: THE GARDEN OF RUTH. This is a mystery novel about the riveting story behind The Book of Ruth. It transports readers into the ancient world and offers a dramatic new perspective on a well-known tale.
Apart from presenting a gripping plot with a touch of mystery, a story of betrayal and passionate love, the novel gives voice to more women in the Bible. Below its surface lurks a feminist message about strong and intelligent women who used their feminine strength to cope with life in a male dominated society. Also enfolded in the book is a message of interfaith tolerance, which is still eminently relevant for us today.
In a way, publishing a new novel is like giving birth to a new child. And, like any mother, I am anxious when my child makes its first steps in the world. Fortunately, THE GARDEN OF RUTH has already met with an initial favorable reception from prestigious publications within the book industry. A nice review in The Publishers’ Weekly (Sept. 4) says that the mystery is intriguing and ancient women are depicted as chafing at limited choices with verve. And a starred review in Kirkus Reviews (reserved for books with special merit) refers to the book as a beautifully sensitive, lustily feminist romance, breathing fire into a ripping good saga (Sept. 15).
Q: Any advice to first time writers on writing and re-writing?
A: Early in my writing process, after some initial disappointments with publishers, there were well-wishers who advised me to give up. They argued that as an outsider with no previous fiction writing experience I stood no chance of succeeding on the highly competitive American Book market.
Others advised me to keep going, but to hone my writing skills and submit my work only after I had done so.
Fortunately I rejected the first advice and accepted the second. To me this indicates that one should take advice very seriously. But, also, one should sift through it and accept only that which is in line with the prompting of one’s own inner voice.
Thank you again, Eva, for your time today! ~Suzanne
And thank you, Suzanne, for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers! Eva