Earlier this year I was part of an online discussion about why an author chooses to write the biography of a real person as historical fiction. The group came up with four reasons, each of which applies to one of my novels.
1. To bring out some hidden facet of the person’s life or character that you can’t substantiate with factual proof but have good cause to think worthwhile. Rav Hisda's Daughter - Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery delves into the magic that the Talmudic rabbis practiced and how prevalent it was in third and fourth century Babylonia. Ancient Jewish magic turned out to be such as fascinating topic that I loved researching it.
2. The character may be privy to or have a particular insight about a situation that hasn’t been explored before. Rashi's Daughters, Book II: Miriam: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France has a male character who struggles with his attraction to men in a time [11th-century] when "Ganymedes" were considered normal, although sinful.
3. To exemplify a specific era from an unusual perspective. Rashi's Daughters, Book III: Rachel examines the First Crusade from a Jewish viewpoint, a major contrast to the typical historical novels that glorify the knights and crusaders.
4. A character may have become a sacred cow and it takes a totally new approach to make them human again. Rashi's Daughters, Book I: Joheved looks at Rashi [Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac], the great Jewish scholar, not as commentary on a page, but as a real man with family and financial problems.
I expect I’m a bit unusual in this, but when it comes to writing, I support American historian Salo Baron’s opposition to what he called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history." No offense to those who focus on pogroms, Spanish Inquisition, or the Holocaust, it seems to me that too many Jewish historical novels dwell on our well-known intervals of trial and tribulation – what I call the Oy-Veh times.
But there were many times and places where our people flourished; those were the ones I wanted to write about. And so I did. Rashi’s Daughters is set in France during the 12th-century Renaissance [I never heard of it before either]. Enchantress and its prequel Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice take place in 4th-century Babylonia, where Jews enjoyed peace and prosperity under the benevolent Persians for hundreds of years.
For more, check out the guest blog post I wrote for The Whole Megillah.
This coming Sunday, August 25, I’ll be speaking at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture’s annual Yom Limmud. My topic, based on research behind my brand new historical novel ENCHANTRESS, is women’s surprisingly prominent role in ancient Jewish magic, and their probably not so surprisingly minor role in the Talmud’s creation, both occurring in the same rabbinic community in 4th-century Babylonia.
Here are some articles about Yom Limmud from August’s San Diego Jewish Journal.
One of them has a nice review of ENCHANTRESS , which I excerpt here. “Brings to life the world of the Talmud creators from a woman’s perspective. In Anton’s novels, that includes everything from sorcery and amulets, magic bowls to ward off demons, learned women, and the feminine use of tzitzit, all of which Anton says she found, from her research and studies, to have actually occurred in the time of the Talmudic rabbis.”
Whenever I do a book talk, I always say that for me, research is the fun part and writing the hard work. One of the joys of research is coming across a piece of information that is surprising, mostly unknown, and sheds new light on the empowerment of Jewish women in the past. For Rashi’s Daughters, that came with discovering that women in Rashi’s community were instrumental in popularizing the ritual of blessing the Shabbat lights. Like everyone else I knew, I had assumed that this was an ancient tradition. But no – it is not only less than 1000 years old, but controversial when Jewish women first started performing it.
I wrote a lengthy article about the subject, which you can read at My Jewish Learning.
Request an Advanced Reading Copy! Get a chance to read ENCHANTRESS as a digital galley months before it’s available in stores…become a First to Read member today!
Now through August 18 [one week only], my publisher is doing a 10-book giveaway for my new historical novel ENCHANTRESS. Here's the Goodreads link.
Fantastic tales of demons and the Evil Eye, magical incantations, and powerful attractions abound in Enchantress, a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia.
One of the most powerful practitioner of these mysterious arts is Rav Hisda’s daughter, whose innate awareness allows her to possess the arcane skills men lack. With her husband, Rava--whose knowledge of the secret Torah enables him to create a “man” out of earth and to resurrect another rabbi from death--the two brave an evil sorceress, Ashmedai the Demon King, and even the Angel of Death in their quest to safeguard their people, even while putting their romance at risk.
The author of the acclaimed Rashi’s Daughters trilogy and the award-winning Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery has conjured literary magic in the land where “abracadabra” originated. Based on five years of research and populated with characters from the Talmud, Enchantress brings a pivotal era of Jewish and Christian history to life from the perspective of a courageous and passionate woman.
The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I saw the animated movie first and loved it, so when I found the book at my local library I couldn't wait to read it. I wasn't disappointed. Funny, poignant, clever and charming, plus a bit of Jewish education from a talking cat. I found myself deliberately slowing down to savor the graphics and make it take longer to finish. I may be forced to actually buy the sequel The Rabbi's Cat 2 since my library doesn't have it.
View all my reviews
Way back in the late 1970’s, my husband and I got involved in a new role-paying game called Dungeons and Dragons, whose varied folk and creatures mostly came out of Lord of the Rings. We bought the manuals, created our own characters and dungeons for them to explore, and spent/wasted a great deal of time doing this. Then our children came along.
Thirty-plus years later, our grown children are playing D&D, both in person and online, as well as Magic Cards - despite having children of their own. D&D manuals now provide hundreds more locales than dungeons, and thousands more characters than dragons. So popular are these games that it is no surprise they have spawned an entire fantasy literature, as detailed in this New York Times article.
As I was writing ENCHANTRESS, I couldn’t help but wonder if the authentic 4th-century spells I found in the Talmud, on amulets and incantation bowls, and in ancient magic manuals had made their way into any D&D scenarios. There was an entire bookcase full of these at my daughter’s house, and sure enough I found four appropriate campaigns: one set in biblical times and three in Babylonia or ancient Arabia.
The authors of these adventures had definitely done their homework. They had the correct names of Jewish angels and demons, plus many of the spells in Sepher Ha-Razim and a few from the Talmud. There was even a character type, the esha chachama [perhaps from the Wise Woman of 2Samuel:14], who cast healing spells. I confess that I utilized a campaign from one of these to bring alive the final magic duel between my heroine and her nemesis.
Because my heroines are historical figures, I try to write so they behave like real people in their times. Which means that they use the privy, menstruate, suffer in childbirth, and see children die young. On a positive note, they also have sex [with their husbands, since I only write halachic sex scenes]. I’ve been complemented on my sex scenes and I enjoy writing them so maybe it shows.
I came across a writing website on how to write good sex scenes. It’s funny and still valid advice from almost 10 years ago. Enjoy and learn from it at this link
It is now less than four weeks until my new historical novel ENCHANTRESS goes on sale. I’m revving up my promotion by doing interviews and guest posts for other people’s blogs, which should appear in early September. That means, regrettably, that I’ve been neglecting my own blog.
So here’s something I didn’t have to write. It’s a YouTube video of the talk I did describing ENCHANTRESS for the Jewish Book Council. I added subtitles, and had a fun time correcting what YouTube first thought I saying. Be sure to turn them on when you watch.
"It's easier to be a critic than an author." ~ Yiddish Proverb
Who would have imagined that Twitter has two groups that tweet Yiddish proverbs? @YiddishProverbs, with almost 22,000 followers, tweets many times a day in English and Yiddish. Their description is “Yiddish (and Jewish) Traditional Proverbs, Curses, Sayings, Phrases, Aphorisms, Slang and Witticisms; (With and Without Translations).” @YiddishProverb [no ‘s’ at the end] has 5600 followers and tweets daily, only in English. Unfortunately it also tweets some ads.
Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda's Daughter by Maggie Anton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Personally, I think this is the best novel I've written. My editor at Penguin did a fantastic job of tightening the story, removing unnecessary exposition, and distributing the backstory from Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery into many scenes instead of a few big information dumps.
Imagine fourth-century Babylonia – land of jinni and flying carpets, where the very word “magic” originated. But this is also where the Talmud was created, and indeed, slipped in among its countless legal arguments are fantastic tales of demons and the Evil Eye, and of enchantresses and rabbis whose spells protected people from them.
There are fewer stories of learned women, not surprising in a text that names more demons than women. One curious piece of Gemara has Rav Hisda’s daughter sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them,” and more astonishingly, she is considered a prophet because that is what ultimately happens. She does marry both of them … sequentially.
This is one of many rabbinic texts I wove into Enchantress, my novel about this audacious girl who yearns to become a sorceress, an esteemed profession for women in her community. But she is caught between memories of her first husband Rami and her increasing passion for Rava, the man she once blamed for Rami’s untimely death. Eventually though, our heroine finds her place among the most powerful magic practitioners, along with Rava, her second husband.