Writers Alice Hoffman and Jillian Cantor: On Writing What We Don’t Know

alice hI I was honored to be one of the speakers along with two amazing writers, Alice Hoffman, who recently published The Marriage of Opposites, and Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count at a luncheon with more than 450 women in Boca West Country Club, sponsored by the Adolph and Rose Levis Jewish Community Center in Boca Raton, FL.

Here is what I learned from Cantor and Hoffman about writing. First, Jillian Cantor’s newest novel is about a fictionalized neighbor of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, two Americans executed for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to Russia during the Cold War. Ethel wasexecuted, Jillian pointed out, on flimsy charges brought by Ethel’s brother, who recanted his testimony before he died. Jillian shared that she had researched that era of the early 1950’s, and then relied on her imagination.

I was inspired by the idea that writers of historical fiction (well, any kind of fiction) must stick to the truth but then must stick to their own truth. Poetic license also means that writers have to rely on historical facts and then imagine and invent. Jillian got the idea for the story when she read Ethel Rosenberg’s last letter to her young sons, then six and ten, in which she stressed her innocence. . . (I will be interviewing Jillian for this blog in a few weeks, so stay tuned.)

Alice Hoffman said that she loved reading when she was younger; in order for her to read the stories she wanted she had to write them. She stressed that she prefers to write what she doesn’t know. She uses writing to answer questions.

Hoffman’s latest novel is based on the story of Rachel Pisarro, the mother of Camille Pisarro, the father of Impressionism, who lived in a small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition and moved to St. Thomas in the early 1800’s. There is not much historical information about Rachel Pisarro;Hoffman breathed details into her story. She said it was the same way she wrote The Dovekeepers, imagining the world of women on Masada in about 73 CE, right after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Speaking of the Inquisition, the director of the Levis Jewish Community Center’s educational programs, Susana Flaum, told me a story that took place in her hometown of Medellin, Colombia. Susana’s aunt, who was member of the hevra kadisha, the local burial circle in Medellin had received a call one day from someone who explained that a woman named Maria Isabel Rodriguez had died. In her will, she requested that the burial circle take care of her. Nobody knew that this woman was a Marrano, a secret Jew, whose ancestors had also fled the Inquisition. She had hidden this secret from her family until after she died.

I shared Susana’s story when I spoke about the hidden gems found in the burial circle rituals and why it is so powerful. Nobody had written a novel about women in a hevra kadisha and that was how I came to write A Remarkable Kindness.

So now it is three weeks since I have been on the road, sharing stories about my writing and my life in South Bend and Munster Indiana; Benton Harbor, Michigan; San Antonio, TX; Omaha, NE; Batavia, IL; West Des Moines, Iowa; Providence, RI; Glen Cove, NY; and finally, Boca Raton, FL. I met some wonderful people and thank everyone who hosted me and shared their own stories.

Books are the symbols of liberty. They were burned during Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. Just thinking about what happened in Paris by Islamic terrorists who are against free speech and writing–especially women writing and speaking their truth–makes me more aware of how vital it is for writers to keep writing and readers to keep reading.

Thank you!

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About dianabletter

Diana Bletter is a writer living in northern Israel whose novel, A Remarkable Kindness, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in August. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, tabletmag, and other publications. Her first book, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (with photographs by Lori Grinker) was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award.
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