Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What creates the spark for you?

In her blog, Book Reader's Heaven, Glenda A. Bixler blogs about Books, Reviews, Authors, Publicity, Tips, short stories, essays...a little poetry, a cat story or two, thoughts on music, movies and products selections. This year she published her interview with me, in three parts, corresponding to the three volumes in my trilogy, The David Chronicles. Her questions were incisive, as they go into an exploration of the creative spark:

Do you prefer one genre more than others? What does it take; that is, what creates the spark for you to decide you want to write a specific book. And, once you've decided on the topic, how do you proceed?

I love historical fiction because I find it the most demanding of all the genres. You have to know a lot about the time and place, you cannot simply make stuff up. But what I bring with me from my poetry is something different: it is the attention to the music of words, the rhythms of our thoughts. 

The classification to genres is only one method available to you to discern the subject of a book. This method can be rigid. I trust that you use it in combination with reading the book description, and taking a peek at the first few pages, which gives you a true taste of the writing style.

I strive to stretch the envelope of what I create. In writing all of my books, I often break the confines of the particular genre, because life as we know it–and my art, which mirrors it– constantly changes from one genre to the next. One moment is is humorous; the next, it is erotic; then, it might be a tragedy. 

The David Chronicles! What got you interested...did you lay out your entire series or did you start with one book and move forward...

I have been enthralled with David since childhood, and by the time I started writing the trilogy it seemed that he was living and breathing inside my head. There was no need to lay the story out, because the events are already recounted in scripture. What I focused on is bringing it to life from the king’s point of view, rather than from the point of view of an objective narrator. For example,  when Tamar, the king’s daughter, is raped by Amnon, or when Absalom, the king’s son, finds his death, how can David describe these events, since he was not there to witness it? Well, he has an anxious premonition that something is about to go awry, and when the news is conveyed to him he learns all he can about what happened. Being a writer of great talent, he records these events for himself, fighting through his grief. 

For your books, approximately what percentage would be considered history versus the fiction added to bring the story to life? Did you use a specific Bible or other religious book to begin? Specifically, how did you gain the amount of knowledge necessary to translate scripture references to a complete series of books?

Studying the biblical story in the original language, rather than in translation, made the story very direct for me. In Hebrew there are no ‘versions’ of the bible--there is the one and only text where every sentence, every word is the same across all illuminated manuscripts and printed books. Translations are interpretations, but growing up in Israel, what I studied is the original.

Let's talk first about your Inspired by Art books...Do the concept for those books come before or after your novels? How did they play a part in relation to your novels? Tell us a little about your teaching activities related to the books...

My art collections are a product of the same fascination with the character, the same interest that sparked the novels. A few years back I embarked on collecting art not by artistic style or era, but rather by the story moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow of the story, as imagined by various artists. Rembrandt, Ivan Schwebel, James Tissot, Rubens, William Blake, Gustave Doré, and Vallotton, to name but a few. These collections served as the basis for a research course which I taught in a university setting, guiding my students in the analysis of contrasts between viewpoints around the biblical story. 

Here is how David describes Amnon’s chamber. (the description is inspired by art that depicts him on his bed, rising upon his sister, Tamar):

Upon entering his house I find myself confused—even before taking a look at him—to see that things in it have been staged in a new manner. Perhaps it just seems that way, because of the remarkably dim air, which is thick with some medicinal vapor. It blots the outlines of the furniture, and casts gloom over the entire space. The heavy cabinet that used to stand opposite the bedroom door is now barricading it, so I have to find my way around that obstacle. 
Usually at this hour the windows are wide open, so sunlight may pour in, to showcase the bed in all its decadence. It is an expensive, heavy piece, decorated according to his taste, with fancy inlays of metal, mother-of-pearl, and ivory, contrasting each other in hue and shine. But now, the thing is drenched in shadows. 
In the dark, you barely note the life-sized statue of a nude holding a fan, standing at this corner of the bed, and the matching statue at the other corner. Carved of Egyptian alabaster, both of these figures lean forward as if to stop you right there, and prevent you from slipping around them. I imagine that if not for being suspended in that motion, they would hiss something, some sordid secret in your ear.
The scarlet draperies have been pulled shut, allowing only a single ray of sun to wander in, and reach for the pillow. There lies Amnon, having dropped his hand limply, and perhaps a bit theatrically, over the edge of the mattress. 
As if threatening to cross him off, the blade of light rests there, barely stirring across his cheek, which brings back the old grief. Tears well in my eyes, stinging me. I blink them off and try to find Amnon’s eyes, but they are obscure to me, completely hidden in the deepest shadow. Perhaps I have yet to adjust to the dark.
“I’m so hot,” he sighs, his voice husky. “Oh, am I in fever!”

Taking it a step further, as I reviewed these three books, one of the major things that struck me was the wide spectrum that was used by the various artists to illustrate a given scene; e.g., David killing Goliath. My question is when writing your books, were you persuaded by a specific artist that "this" was what looks like what happened? Or did you use just scripture? or a broader research base? David for instance, was portrayed as a young man in some paintings but others showed him much older and muscular... What age and physical description did you decide to use in your first, opening book? Was it important to you to stay as close as possible to history or did you allow your creative imagination considerable latitude?

When you see how artists look at these events from different viewpoints, you realize there is no ‘absolute’ way to view it. The life of David is, in a way, a mystery, which invites us into a journey of exploration.

I am often inspired by the art when writing a specific scene. For example, the execution of Amnon, as orchestrated by his brother, Absalom, is imagined here by his father, David: 

This was no murder. There is no other name for it but execution.
I stare at the darkness of the palms of my hands and at once, images of that feast—for lack of a better term—light up in my mind. I hear every sound in that place, and take in every smell, as if I have witnessed the entire affair myself, as if I own the senses of the killer and of the victim at once, as if I am possessed by them, because they are, both of them, my own flesh and blood. 
I shudder to see so many daggers drawn out of metal holsters. Their harsh grating noise penetrates me. A gasp, a last gurgle of surprise escapes from Amnon’s throat, as many hands grip him, and twist his arms forcefully behind his back. 
The bleating of sheep is heard faintly in the background as blades rise, flashing in the air. Then they plunge upon his throat, clinking against each other, and the first of them slashes the vein. 
His bloodied corpse is thrown, like leftover meat, by the side of the bench where he has sat. Overhead, birds of prey start hovering. Flies are buzzing, buzzing all around, sensing the sweet taste of blood, which is spurting from his neck. 
His eyes turn. They go on turning in their sockets, nearly flipping over in an unnatural way, as if to see the man standing directly behind him. Absalom. There, there he is, striking a victorious pose: legs wide apart, arms crossed, giving him what he has wanted: a nod, a final nod of recognition.
Oh, my son, Absalom.

By the third book, David has been King for many years, has a large family, and has written much of his literary contributions, is that correct? For me, he seemed a man who had grown old enough to look back and concern himself with the past as opposed to what he was doing to rule at that time. In fact, he seemed a rather weak, disheartened man.  You've mentioned that the books are created from his words. And, in fact, I found the artwork created for this period a much more provocative presentation. How do you see from your research that King David had come to this point in his life?

Indeed, in The Edge of Revolt David has passed the prime of his life. He has gone from an age of action into an age of reflection, so in my mind I see him as the psalmist and poet more so than ever. There is great beauty in that, but in addition, great pain, because is finds himself unable to make decisions, especially when Amnon his son rapes Tamar his daughter, and when Absalom his second son executes Amnon. 

Still, I would not call David weak, but rather, profoundly torn between his love for his children, whom he adores, and the need to restrain and punish them them when they commit crimes against each other and against him. Such a choice is daunting, so I fully understand how disheartened he becomes. How ironic is it that while his palace is being designed with the greatest of splendors, a destruction comes from within his family, threatening to undermine the foundations of the House of David.

In many paintings describing him at this age, a sense of darkness is depicted. For example, in this painting depicting him as a psalmist, wearing an elaborate head scarf and readying himself to play his musical instrument. But notice the head of Goliath at his feet. It is a trophy from years past, which must have been preserved to survive decades after the famous battle... It is at once a reminder of glory and of death. This painting gave me the idea to have David stare into the eye-holes of the mummified  head of Goliath:

Amnon winks again, which enrages me, in a flash, into dragging him by the ear, all the way to the opposite side of the court, to the central glass display, where the head of goliath, preserved by Egyptian experts, is encased.
Its eyebrows are bushier than I remember, and so is the serpentine hair twisting upon itself. It seems to be hissing, creeping towards us, pressing against the glass as if to burst it open, which makes me wonder if there is still a remnant of life inside this scalp. I have to remind myself that nearly three decades have passes since the day I killed him. 
Meanwhile Amnon cannot help but shudder, perhaps because of the darkness crawling out of those empty eye sockets, and even more than that, because he can see his own reflection right there, in between the huge jaws, over the sheet of glass that separates him from that thing, that memento of my earliest battle.
I let go of his ear, not before breathing into it, “Ever think of death?”

There was definitely a struggle that David did not want to give up his Kingdom, but that His sons and even his army were discontented with the good life they now had, with nothing to do. Given my personal thoughts on war and how it gets started, I found it unacceptable, the only word I can use, that David had become lackadaisical and sad that David was not doing more as their leader to establish other options for the citizens other than continuing in war... Noting that his own thoughts were more self-serving, am I correct in being disenchanted with the man he'd become?

I would beg to differ. When his son Absalom, whom he adores, tries to topple him from the throne, David does not stay in Jerusalem to mount a battle against his son. Instead, he escapes the city and goes into exile. And when Absalom’s army chases him down, David, who has grown to hate the violence of war, instructs his generals and soldiers not to hurt his son, to be gentle with the man who wants to kill him. 

Having been to so many wars in the past, I cannot help but imagine the soundless spread of wings, as birds of prey hover in the air, as they descend upon lifeless figures and peck at their wounds. I hear groans of pain even as I watch these young, fresh faces, many of whom are smiling at me, waving farewell. 
All of them hear me loud and clear when I bellow, “Halt! One more thing, before you go!”
Joav, Abishai and Ittai stop marching, and all the men behind them come to attention. The last thing they expect of me, as they head for a crucial battle, is a plea for restraint.
“Be gentle with the young man Absalom,” I tell them, “for my sake.”

He had ensured he had Bathsheba by getting her husband killed, had wives and his harem...yet it seemed that Bathsheba was the only female that stood by him at that time. What's more, when his son, who had quite a reputation for mishandling women, sought his sister, David, perhaps not willing to see the potential danger, sent her into his home and directly into a situation she could handle... She was raped. and David did nothing.
Is there any historical background that you can provide that would explain David's lack of action, even to comfort his daughter?

You know, most women described in the bible with a single sentence that immortalizes their beauty. Some of them are not even mentioned by name, because in those times they would be considered the property of their husband. Tamar presents the opposite case: her entire dialogue with her rapist has somehow been preserved for future generations, which is amazing not only by contrast to other women who were not given a voice but also because of the shameful circumstances. It got me thinking: How did it happen that the scribes agreed to include her conversation with Amnon is such a complete way? 

Having realized that Tamar has been raped, David tries to protect her by making sure word does not get around. 

Having failed to protect Tamar, I must shield her now in an entirely different way. No one should learn these sordid details of the assault. In public, the story should be denied, if at all possible. For certain, it should not make it into the official records of history, because that would be like violating my daughter all over again.

In The Edge of Revolt, I imagine David maturing into the opposite approach, that of giving a voice to the victim.

“Give her a voice,” says Bathsheba, in a tone that is intense, and full of pity for Tamar, and for all of us. “Let everyone hear how a woman does all she can, with such amazing courage, to resist a rape. Let her story be told!”
“That,” say I, “will take a change in the way things are.”

As often is the case, including today,  men, leaders, fail to act when a woman is raped. Yet, many speak out when such an outrage does occur. In this case, another son of David was angry that his sister had been abused by a brother and arranged his death. Still David did not act... Do you think that protecting family members who commit crimes can be just ignored in the hope of it all going away?

It appears that lack of action by King David led directly to the revolt that came. It also seemed that some loyal followers cared more for their King than did his own family... I admit, I failed to see the lesson that could be learned...Is there one?

This story is about coming full circle to believe something that you did not recognize at the beginning of the journey. His generation believed in glorifying the victorious at the cost of silencing the downtrodden. But listen to David’s thoughts as he comes to his last hours:

Below, somewhere in the women’s quarters, children are starting to awaken. I hear their voices: some cry, others call for their mothers. One of them, a young girl, runs out to the courtyard, then stops and turns her head back. 
I squint against the light, which allows me to recognize her: she is my grandchild, Absalom’s child.
Now she waves at me. Her laughter is so pure, so melodic. It is full of silvery notes, which reminds me of my own daughter, Tamar, and the way she used to laugh, before silence overtook her. 
I want to go down to the child and put my arms around her to keep her safe, now and in the future—but I know that it is not in my power. Even so I murmur to her, across the distance, “Let you never surrender to silence, because if you do, it would leave you with the rusty, poisonous taste of shame.” 
The child has opened the gate. Like me, she is watching the sunrise. I wonder what it means for her. Perhaps, hope.
One day my daughter, Tamar, will stop listening to the dictates of those who wished to hush her. She will no longer obey the words, ‘Shut up,’ which she must still be hearing in her mind, in the voice of Amnon, who raped her. Nor will she obey the words, “Be silent for now,” in the voice of Absalom, who sought to protect her. 

The real shame—now I know—is to consent to silence. A day will come when she will transform her suffering into meaning, into words.

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