Thursday, July 10, 2008

Special Feature: Interview with Israeli author Eva Etzioni-Halevy

The Triumph of Deborah, by Eva Etzioni-Halevy. Published 2008 by Penguin Books. Click on the cover to buy from your local IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller.

Awhile ago I was contacted with the opportunity to read The Triumph of Deborah, the latest entry in author Eva Etzioni-Halevy's series of historical fiction focusing on women of the Hebrew Bible, and to interview its author; I found the book to be very entertaining and was glad to have the chance to read it. Other books in the series include The Song of Hannah and The Garden of Ruth. Ms. Etzioni-Halevy's answers to my questions follow.

1. Can you summarize the story and tell my readers a little about the book?

This novel is the tale of Deborah, THE most eminent woman, and one of the most beloved heroines of the Bible, a courageous leader, who saved her people from certain destruction

In ancient Israel, war is looming. Deborah sends the warrior Barak into launching a strike against the neighboring Canaanites, who threaten Israel with destruction. Against all odds succeeds, returning triumphantly with the daughters of the Canaanite King, as his captives. But military victory is only the beginning of the turmoil, as a complex relationship develops between Barak and the two princesses.

Deborah, recently cast off by her husband, develops a surprising affinity for Barak. Yet she struggles to rebuild her existence on her own terms, while also groping her way toward the greatest triumph of her life: the attainment of peace.

Filled with vivid historical detail, TTHE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH is an absorbing and riveting tale, and also a tribute to feminine strength and independence. In an era in which women had few rights, some women, most prominently Deborah, succeeded in "breaking the glass ceiling" (as we would call it today) and obtaining prominent positions for themselves.

This is also relevant for our time. For although women have obtained legal equality with men, and many more options are open to them, they have not obtained equality in practice. In this Deborah and the other women in the novel can serve as shining role models for them, for us. The lesson that women toay can learn from these women is this: if at that time, when conditions for women were so much worse, some women had the inner strength to achieve what they had set their minds to do, certainly we can do so today. Not all women want to become leaders, but in the wake of Deborah and the other heroines of the biblical story, they can say to themselves: whatever I want to achieve, whatever is right for ME, I can do it.

2. I'm not much of a Bible reader, so could you tell me how much of the story was directly on the Bible, the midrash (extra-canonical stories that expand on Biblical stories, often augmenting the roles of supporting characters in the Bible version), and how much was your own invention? Why did you make the decisions you made with respect to sources?

My novels in general and THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH in particular are light stories, love stories with twisting plots, "pageturners," as they have frequently been referred to, written first and foremost for reading pleasure, which are yet meticulously faithful to the Bible. They don't deviate at all from the scripture, only add to it. The biblical stories are short and leave many gaps. In my novels I fill in these gaps with my imagination, my identification, and the inexplicable feeling that this is how things really happened.

In the case of DEBORAH, the basis of the plot is in the Bible: The Scripture tells us that when Deborah summoned Barak and ordered him to go to war against the Canaanites, he said to her something strange: If you go with me I will go, but if you don't go with me I will not go. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that she did in fact go with him not only to the battlefield, but to his hometown as well. Yet it tells us that she was a married woman, a mother of children, and her husband did not go with her.

So this got the wheels of my mind turning. I asked myself: why did Barak want Deborah with him in the battlefield at a time when war was strictly a men's affair? What did her husband have to say when she went off with the warrior to distant parts, leaving him to do the babysitting? And what transpired between Barak and Deborah when they were away with no husband in sight?

All these questions arise straight from the biblical text. The answers I supplied came from my own imagination and, as I said before, from the feeling that I was actually there and witnessed it all.

As for the Midrash and other extra-biblical sources, I looked at them but did not use them as basis for my own interpretation. I believe that the biblical characters (including biblical women) are rich, many-sided human beings, with strenghts but also with weaknesses, some of which stem from their sexuality. In many cases, the later intrpreters have interpreted away
this sexuality and turned the characters into one-dimensional, super-righteous personalities, which they were not meant to be originally. To my mind, this is a shame. The Bible is good enough as it is, and none of its aspects need to be "interpreted away". Hence I based my novels directly on the Bible, as it has been written, and not as it has been reinterpreted.

3. How and why did you choose the very distinctive, florid narrative style of THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH? You've written several other books in your series on Biblical women; why did you choose this tone instead of a more standard literary voice?

I tried to write in a style that would be authentic to the story and conjure up the era I was writing about, and still be attractive to modern, present-day readers.

I did so by using, as far as possible, biblical language and biblical imagery, but baseed on the modern rather than the old translations of the Bible.

Although that was not my aim initially, in retrospect this turned out to be a distinctive style. This is a good thing in its own right, because I think that it is a cardinal sin for any writer to follow a well-trodden path. If I managed to write in an authentic style and also avoid this sin, this makes me doubly happy.

4. What inspired you to write your series of novels about Biblical women? Who are they, and what was it about them that intrigued or interested you? What are your hopes for the reader?

It so happened, that rather late in life I began reading the Bible on my own and I was fascinated by it. What I found so compelling is that it contains the most DRAMATIC and the most TRAUMATIC stories about people who lived thousands of years ago, ad yet are so similar to us in their hopes, anxieties and desires.

I was also inspired by the fact that I live "on location", so to speak, in Israel, and I could actually see the spots where the plots of the novels took place.

I was particularly entranced by the women of the Bible, with whom I identified so strongly, that I felt as if I had taken a journey back in time, and as if I were part of their lives.

In the Bible these women are mostly side characters, so I decided to bring them into the center of the stage, turn the limelight on them and amplify their voices so that they could be heard loud and clear across the generations.

In this way I also hoped to magnify the feminine part of the Bible.

My hope is that my excitement in writing about these women has come through to the readers of the novels, and that I have succeeded in bringing them alive for contemporary readers.

5. Did you write these books for a general audience or did you have a specific audience in mind? How did this intention influence your choices as a storyteller? What can diverse audiences gain from your books?

The books are written for a general audience. They are for Jews, Christians and believers of other religions, and also for non-religious people, or those who have no religious affinity at all. Since they are light, entertaining stories in their own right, they are for people who have some
interest in the Bible, but no less also for persons who have no interest in the Bible at all.

Since they are about women, and the male characters are frequently seen through the eyes of women, they are geared more to the interest of women readers than to those of men. But there have been quite a few men who have told me that they have readd the novels and enjoyed them very much.

The most immediate gain readers can derive from the novels is the pleasure of reading, and becoming emotionally involved with the personalities of the novels by identifying with them, or taking exception from them.

Readers might also learn something about the period and society, ancient Israel, in which the stories take place.

Finally, quite a number of people have told me that having read the novels, they went back to read the Bible, which they had not done for many years. This is an extra bonus. But if people have just enjoyed the novels without any additional gains, that is good enough for me and, I hope, for them as well.

6. How have readers responded to the series, and to THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH in particular?

Readers' responses have been overwhelmingly supportive.

There have been a few isolated adverse comments to my first two novels, from apparently very strictly orthodox people who seem to have taken exception from the few sensuous scenes in the novels, but the vast majority of the comments have been most positive. To my delight there have been quite a few religious-orthodox people, Jews as well as Christians, who have
expressed full support for the novels, as authentically based on the spirit and the letter of the Bible.

THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH, although it does not differ in respect to sensuality from the previous novels, to the best of my knowlege, has elicited no negative and only positive responses so far, and also incredibly affirmative reviews.

Thank you so much for your time and participation, Ms. Etzioni-Halevy. I look forward to reading your next book!


Anonymous said...

Marie - excellent author interview! It's so enriching to our experience of the book, to learn more about the author and his/her motivations and inspirations.

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

Very insightful interview questions and very interesting, thoughtful answers as well. Good job, Marie and Eva!

Marie Cloutier said...

Eva wanted me to leave the following comment:

Dear Commentators,

Thank you so much for your kind words. They are most encouraging.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview :) I've been eyeballing her books but haven't had a chance to pick one up yet. This only increases my interest!

Petunia said...

Thanks Marie for pointing me to this interview. It answers one of my questions about whether the author's previous books have the same level of "romance novel" in them. Very nicely done interview.