Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Biography of a Novel—Part 4

Last week, I shared with you the opinion of a professor of biblical studies at a local Roman Catholic college in St. Paul, Minnesota. He considered my manuscript, entitled The Jesus Interviews, to be inauthentic in its depiction of the people of first-century Palestine.

Just as as editor had given me helpful suggestions, so this professor provided me with a helpful reading list of thirty-six books by biblical scholars who would help me understanding first-century CE Jews and Romans.

Having retired in 2001, and I now began serious research. Never having been moderate, I immediately bought all thirty-six books and began to read them, highlighting as I read, and then, toward the end of the work day, taking copious notes from the highlighting.

During the next sixteen months, I read not only the thirty-six recommended books but also a number of other scholarly tomes referred to by the authors I was reading. The most helpful authors—for me—were Geza Vermes, John P. Meier, and E. P. Sanders.

From that research, I learned a fact that surprised me, given my reading of the Christian Testament: during the first-century, most Jews held the Pharisees in great esteem. That was totally different from what I’d learned in reading the four Christian Gospels.

Given that, I wanted Jonathan to be a Pharisee or a scribe who’d studied with the Pharisees and respected them greatly. This, I thought, would create reader interest. Also I wanted to use Jesus’ Hebrew name of Yeshua since that was more authentic.

Now I had a character: Jonathan, a scribe in Jericho. Next, I needed a plot. How to get him from Jericho to the Galilee? What would prompt him to leave home?

Answering that question led to my discovering many other characters who would play major roles in the novel: Chaviva, Jonathan’s wife; Davi, his daughter; Daniel and Yeshua, people he knew as a youth; Benjamin, a helper during the days of his journeying; John the Baptizer, the man who taught him silence; and most importantly, Hashem, the name Jews used daily for God.

As I began to plot the novel, I considered Jonathan’s personality and demeanor. Sorting my own experiences, I recalled that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I’d gone through a virulent mid-life crisis. Then, in the late ‘90s, I’d experienced a crisis of faith that engaged me in vociferous arguments with Whoever was the Power beyond me—the Whoever I came to call “The Holy Oneness of All Creation of Which I Am a Part.” Accompanying my crisis of faith were many symbolic dreams. 

Thus, it was that I began to weave the story of a man who is going through a crisis of faith that is loosely based on my own. A man having dreams also loosely based on my own. A man trying to discover what or who is at the deep center of his being.

That weaving took from 2002 to 2019 as I wrote and discovered the need for new characters, new settings, new dialogue, new plotting, new suspense, new tension. I threw away many scenes that didn’t move the story forward as well as scenes lacking tension. I discarded paragraphs that reflected too much research and would lead readers away from the main story. Finally, just this past April, I discovered where to begin The Reluctant Spy.

It is done. For better or worse, I’ve done the best I can. I hope the book will touch the lives of its readers.


Lithograph from Wikipedia

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Biography of a Novel—Part 3

Welcome back to my exploration of the biography of the novel I’m publishing in the next few weeks. In two earlier postings, I explained that the genesis of the book was my daily walk in a cemetery. There, I began to speak aloud one day. The words seemed to answer the question: “Who is he for you?”

Recognizing that the person being described was Jesus of Nazareth, I reread the four Christian Gospels. There I discovered twenty-seven people whose lives interested me. Asking each the cemetery question, I wrote twenty-seven monologues as answers. Friends who read these monologues encouraged me to publish them as a devotional book.

However, the crisis of faith I was then experiencing did not seem conducive to following through on that suggestion. Moreover, I’d always wanted to write a novel, and I found myself intrigued by what some of these characters had said about Jesus and about their own lives. I didn’t know exactly what to make of all the words that had come.

Then the lightbulb came on.

Someone was asking the question: “Who is he for you?”

That someone could also be a character who could hold the book together.

Given the times—the first-century of the Common Era in Palestine—only a man would be culturally able to travel around the country meeting people and asking that question. So I needed a man who had the time and leisure to do so. Thus, he couldn’t be tied down to a job. Also, he would need the money/means to travel and stay at inns and buy food and papyrus or parchment for writing. He would need to know how to write Hebrew or Aramaic—the languages of the people in Palestine. Given all this, I thought he’d need to have some wealth.

Ta-Dah! The character of Jonathan, a wealthy Judaean aristocrat, emerged and began a dialogue with the characters, asking them to describe their experience of Jesus. In this way, the monologues of Draft 1 became the ribs of Draft 2. The description of Jonathan’s journey to the Galilee to conduct these interviews became the musculature holding those ribs together.

For an hour each weekday throughout the next year, I researched ancient Palestine: where the characters might live, their clothing, their occupations, their tools, their homes and food, the flora and fauna of their region, their Hebrew names. That is, I researched the setting of the novel.

Using this research, I wove the monologues into dialogues between Jonathan and the characters he met as he journeyed throughout the Galilee and Judaea asking his question.

Two friends— Lea Ann Gregerson and Al Rashid—came up with the title for this second version: The Jesus Interviews. Using that title, I sent out query letters to several editors to see if anyone was wanted to read the manuscript. Only one responded.

She praised the writing of the second version, but turned it down. “It’s too predictable,” she said. “Most people already know what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. There’s no suspense. No tension. To create suspense, focus on Jonathan. He’s a wholly fictitious character. Do something with him beyond having him simply interview other people. Give him a life!”  

So that’s what happened next: I began to come up with a background for Jonathan and his life. That led to a third draft of the novel. However, when I asked a biblical professor at a local college to read it, he found much detail that wasn’t accurate. Moreover, both characters and culture weren’t authentic. Clearly, if I wanted a novel, I needed to do more research.

That’s next week’s posting!


Map of the Galilee, circa 50 CE, from Wikipedia

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Biography of a Novel: Part 2

Last week, I began a series of postings on the biography of my historical novel, The Reluctant Spy. In Part 1 of that series, I described the genesis of the book. (In her comment last week, Joanne used that word, and I so like it! Thank you.)

Briefly, while I walked in the Stillwater cemetery back in 1997, two biblical characters began speaking through me. I realized they were responding to a question: “Who is he for you?” Knowing they were both from the faith document called the Gospel of Luke, I began to reread that Christian testament.

Now let’s began Part 2 of the series: the development of the first version of the novel.

Entitled Who Is He for You? the first version was a series of monologues spoken by the characters who peopled the four gospels of the Christian Testament. I spent several weeks—one hour each morning because I was still working full time—reading the gospels and thinking about how each character I met in them might respond to the question, “Who is Jesus for you?”

After rereading, I made a list of twenty-seven characters who might have a response to the question: Who is he for you? For each, I wrote a monologue. After completing these testaments of faith or disbelief, I asked several friends to read the manuscript. I wasn’t sure what I had—what I would call the monologues. They clearly weren’t a novel. But what were they?

Friends described them as “spiritual reflections” or a “devotional” book. One reader called it my “love letter to Jesus.”

I had no desire to write spiritual reflections or daily devotions. Why? Because at that time, I was going through my third crisis of faith. I’d gone through one when I was seventeen and another when I walked away from Catholicism in the 1970s. In 1997, I was struggling with whether I could believe in a Supreme Being. The struggle was a virulent one.

Often during my daily walks in the cemetery, I found myself arguing with the God in whom I’d believed for some sixty-two years. In the silence amidst the gravestones, I’d shout my frustration. My fear. My disdain. My sorrow. My loneliness. My disbelief.
For me, those days were like the struggle of Jacob with the angels in the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible. After their struggle, Jacob was left with a limp and a blessing.

For me, perhaps, the limp has been my inability to believe in my writing. The blessing, perhaps, is the novel that will soon be published. There is no doubt that in working on it, off and on for twenty-two years, I’ve developed a spirituality that enriches my life.

Now back to 1999: In two years, I had produced hundreds of words spoken by characters in the Christian Bible. I didn’t feel or think that I was a Christian any longer. I still deeply believed that a man names Jesus had lived and roamed the hills and valleys of Palestine back in the first century of the Common Era. 

I still knew that he was my dearest friend. That he had influenced my life as no other person, not even my mother, had. That his words about justice and compassion, inclusion and forgiveness had become a philosophy that guided my life.

But how could I write about him when my belief in his divinity was also being affected by my crisis of faith?

What was I to do with those twenty-seven interviews? And that, my friends, is what I’ll write about next week in Part 3 of this series.


Painting by Delacroix from Wikipedia.