Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Perils of Biblical Inspiration

Would you believe that writing biblically inspired books is a risky proposition? Let me suggest to you that it is. Why? 
Because some of your readers may have only a vague recollection of the reference material, back from their days in Sunday school. Others may be totally unfamiliar with it, because they may come from a different culture altogether. So you have to introduce enough of the original story to the readers, and you better do it in a fresh way, one that highlights the immediacy of its meaning. Here, for example, is the voice of Yankle (based on the biblical Jacob) in my book A Favorite Son:
“When I sprinkle my secret blend of spices; here, take a sniff, can you smell it? When I chop these mouthwatering sun-dried tomatoes, add a few cloves of garlic for good measure, and let it all sizzle with lentils and meat—it becomes so scrumptious, so lipsmacking, finger-licking, melt-in-your-mouth good!
There is a certain ratio of flavors, a balance that creates a feast for the tongue and a delight for the mind; and having mastered that balance, with a pinch of imported cumin from the north of Persia, a dash of Saffron from the south of Egypt, I can tell you one thing: When the pot comes to a full bubbling point, and the aroma of the stew rises up in the air—it would make you dribble! Drive you to madness! For a single bite, you would sell your brother, if only you had one!”
By design, his voice is a direct and intimate one, letting you get close enough to taste, or at least to smell the aroma of his lentil soup. Not only that, but the ‘you’ in this passage is not just the preverbial you. Rather (as is revealed later) it is a character with a complex emotional relationship to the main character: his firstborn, who at the conclusion of the story is just about to fool Yankle in a most devastating way, by letting him believe that Joseph, his favorite son, has been devoured by a wild beast.
No wonder Yankle has a dark side. Here he is, pondering the bitterness of sibling rivalry, and the abuse of an elderly father by his son, which perpetuate themselves here from one generation to the next:
“It is an odd feeling. Have you ever faced it? Being dead to someone you envy; someone you miss, too; someone who knows you intimately and, even worse, has the chutzpa to occupy your thoughts day in, day out. It grinds down on your nerves; doesn’t it? Trust me, being dead to your brother is not all that it is cracked up to be, but it does set you free—oh, don’t act so surprised! It frees you from any lingering sense of obligation. Brother, you say to yourself. What does it mean, Brother? Nothing more than a pang, a dull pang in your heart.
You have betrayed him. Accept his hate. You need not talk to him ever again. For the rest of your life, you are free! A stranger— that is what you are. A stranger, visited from time to time by dreams: Dreams about the mother you will never see again, and the father you left behind, on his deathbed. Dreams of waiting, waiting so eagerly for the next day, to meet your brother at the end of an endless exile. Dreams of grappling with him all night long, until the crack of dawn. Until your ankles give way. Until you lose your footing on the ground.
Then, rising up to take you is the darkness of the earth; which is where you wake up at sunrise to find yourself alone.”
Some of your readers may be well versed with the reference material, and for them, you better offer an extra layer of meaning. For example, in the passage above, the sentence “Dreams of grappling with him all night long, until the crack of dawn. Until your ankles give way“ is an allusion to Jacob grappling with the angel, the night before he meets his brother after years of estrangement. In the biblical story, this is symbolic of Jacob struggling with God. But in my modern interpretation, this is symbolic of Yankle struggling with his curse, the loneliness in which is he is stranded, now that his brother is his enemy.
A Favorite Son does not amplify what the bible says. In fact, it offers a secular point of view, and a mirror to our souls. To me, the bible is rife with drama, sex, and violence, which makes it a rich source, a place to explore the truth about ourselves, about our struggle between the angels and demons inside all of us. My Yankle is no hero, no one you might want to revere. Instead, he is a rebellious teenager, a sly smart-ass about to cheat his father. Which may well offend some readers, especially those who make the mistake to expect nothing more that an expansion of the original story. To such readers, my book may be seen as nothing less than blasphemy.
So? What do you think? Is writing biblically-inspired books is a risky proposition?

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2 comments:

  1. Very interesting: perhaps inspiring!
    Best regards,
    Mike Wilkins.

    ReplyDelete