Writer Dara Horn: On Writing, Kids, and an “Unintentional Medieval Facebook”

DARA HORN

DARA HORN

I’m honored to host writer Dara Horn, author of A Guide For the Perplexed (WW Norton). Writing in The New York Times, Jami Attenberg called it an “intense, multi-layered story.”

Diana: Real-life people—the 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides and the 19th-century Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter play major roles in your latest novel, A Guide For the PerplexedCan you tell us how those stories came to join forces with your fictional characters?

Dara Horn: When I wrote this book, I had recently finished a book tour for my previous novel, All Other Nights—a book about Jewish spies during the American Civil War. At several events for that book, I noticed that readers were showing up in costume, in Union or Confederate uniform, with muskets and pigs-hair toothbrushes, and waxing poetic about their most recent battlefield reenactment. I decided it was time for me to take a break from historical fiction, and so I set out to write a totally contemporary novel, where the characters were all my own. And so I wrote a novel so contemporary that it is actually set in the very near future, about two sisters who hate each other and featuring a software app one of them invented that records everything its users do—and which, for the record, doesn’t quite exist yet in the real world beyond my book.

But when I saw that so much of my hyper-contemporary plot was about the distinction between history and memory—between the actual evidence of the past and the story we choose to create about what that past means to us—I knew I needed to test it against something more significant than one (fictional) person’s childhood. I was aware of the Cairo Genizah [ a place for storing books or ritual  objects which have become unusable]since I was a teenager, and I decided to investigate this older form of what we now call “data storage”—in this case, a room full of nearly 200,000 discarded medieval documents that, in the aggregate, provide enough evidence of daily life that it constitutes a kind of unintentional medieval Facebook.

I knew that Rabbi Solomon Schechter had discovered the Genizah. But when I went to find out the actual story of its discovery (a process that would have been a lot easier one year later, when two popular books were published telling this very story!), I found a wealth of details that essentially handed me these historic figures as characters. My contemporary novel was focused on the relationship between two sisters, a rewriting of the Joseph story that casts the free-will-versus-fate dilemma as one intertwined with the nature-nurture debate. (How much of who we become is up to us?) Imagine how wonderfully convenient it was for me to discover that the people who alerted Schechter to the trail of medieval papers leaking out of Cairo were in fact a set of identical twins—two Scottish Presbyterian middle-aged widows who were dazzlingly brilliant and had themselves discovered an important early version of the Gospels (which was just like the Gospels we know today, except without the virgin birth and without the resurrection… I couldn’t make this up).

When I realized I was going to be writing from Schechter’s point of view, I researched his life and quickly discovered another unbelievable gift to my novel: Schechter himself was an identical twin. Even better, he and his twin were like a foil for the Scottish sisters. The Scottish twins had been bound by their father’s will to live together for the rest of their lives or else forfeit his fortune. But Schechter and his twin brother had both abandoned their Hasidic town in Romania for radically different lives: Schechter had gone west to become an academic, while his brother moved to what was then Ottoman Palestine and founded what became the Israeli city of Zichron Yaakov.

When I started looking into the life of Maimonides [a 12th century rabbi and sage and author, too, of The Guide to the Perplexed], I found yet another gift for my book: Maimonides himself had a brother with whom he was very close. In one of the letters from the Cairo Genizah, he describes how his brother, a traveling businessman, had drowned on a business trip to India. That letter describes his mourning for his brother with beautiful biblical language (and his brother’s last letter to him, from the port in what’s now Somalia as he waited for the ship on which he would drown, was also found in the Genizah and is also beautiful); he says he has been in mourning for eight years. Yet when he mentions his brother’s drowning, he also adds that his brother drowned “with a great deal of my money.” I found this an odd thing to include in a letter that expresses such powerful grief. Maimonides, and to a lesser extent Schechter, are figures who are usually thought of today more as concepts or even as “brands” than as people. But for me, these details about their brothers brought out something conflicted or regretful in each of them that made them very human and very real.

Diana: Can you tell us a bit about your writing style? What are some rules you follow for your writing? Do you write an outline? Did you know the end of your novel before you got there? And what are you working on now?

Dara Horn: People often ask questions like this about my creative process, which I think is funny because the question implies that I have a creative process. I never took a creative writing class, so it never occurred to me to make any rules for myself. The truth is that I don’t plan my novels at all. My novels typically start with a hundred pages that I throw away. But again, what does it mean to be typical? I’ve only written four novels so far, and the most recently two started that way. It’s a bit like raising children, in that having done it before doesn’t mean you’ll know how to do it again, because the challenges are different each time around. If I could just publish the same book and raise the same child again and again, I’d have it made. As it is, though, I don’t have any plan, and no, I don’t know how it’s going to end. With this novel at some point I decided I wanted to loosely follow the contours of the biblical Joseph story, so to me that meant the contemporary sisters had to confront each other in some way at the end. But that’s not saying much. (And their confrontation ends quite differently from the biblical version.) Other than that, I’m basically writing the same way you are reading: to find out what happens next.

As for what I’m working on now, remember those hundred pages that I throw away? I’ll let you know when I make it past those.

Diana: Finally, www.thebestchapter.com explores how to write your best chapter and also how to live your best chapter each day in the story of your life.  You have—at last count, four kids. I know the feeling with four kids and two step-kids. Were you serious about creating an app that actually dilates time???? If that is not yet available, what are some things you manage to do to take care of yourself each day?

Dara Horn: The app that dilates time is still in development. Until then, my main sources of inspiration are daycare and public school, and the rare instances when both are in session and no one is home sick. I am very inspired as a writer by having four or even sometimes five hours a day when my house is empty and no one is smearing anything on my clothing. (And even better, they can smear as much fingerpaint as they want at school, with the clean-up done by someone who isn’t me.) My day is very starkly divided into work and children, with a very clear demarcation line at 2:30pm when I have to start picking everyone up. I have gotten used to this divide down the middle of my life, which I think just about everyone experiences in one way or another. I see this as two chapters rather than one. I don’t know which one is my best chapter yet, but if it turned out to be the writing one, I think I’d count myself a failure.

What revives me each day are my evenings with my husband. Our children are still too young for us to have a family dinner that any of us would enjoy, so they eat at 5pm (while I read stories aloud to them, or while my husband conducts tableside science experiments with them), and then the two of us get to have an adult evening after everyone is asleep by 8pm. His career and interests are totally different from mine—he’s an attorney who focuses on technology and law, and he builds drones in our basement and flies them for fun—but we share a sense of humor and a creative intensity that reminds me each day what all of it is for.

Thank you so much, Dara!

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4 Responses to Writer Dara Horn: On Writing, Kids, and an “Unintentional Medieval Facebook”

  1. This is a fabulous interview, Diana.
    Dara, your details of the writing–and the costumes that some wore to your book signings–are a perfect complement to the details of the books. I was especially interested that you typically throw away your first 100 pages.

  2. juliabarrett says:

    Impressive! I’m big on Jewish history and lost books found. Wonderful!

  3. Sharon Blassberg Mann says:

    Maimonides, Rabbi Solomon Schechter and the Cairo Genizah are all subjects that are of interest to me and I would never have expected them to somehow be related in a novel. My interest is definitely piqued.

  4. Wonderful interview ladies. I think I’d cry if I had to throw away 100 pages, but then that’s why we’re all so unique. :-)

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