Women, History, and The Weight of Ink with Rachel Kadish

On the Why We Write podcast: The acclaimed author of The Weight of Ink, talks about her novel — a literary page-turner about two women living centuries apart.

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Episode notes

Rachel Kadish is the acclaimed author of The Weight of Ink, winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award, as well as the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, the New England Review and Salon, among others.

In this episode, Kadish, a faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program, talks about her most recent novel — the interwoven tale of two women: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

Author and Professor Caroline Heller conducts the interview.

Find the full transcript below.

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  • Transcript

    [music]

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. This is episode two.

    Caroline Heller: I’m Caroline Heller. I'm on the faculty of Lesley University, and I'm here with the acclaimed writer and novelist Rachel Kadish, who's also on the faculty of Lesley's MFA in writing program. Rachel is the author of three novels: From a Sealed Room, Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story, and most recently, The Weight of Ink. She's received several notable literary prizes for her body of work, including a Coretta Award, a coveted Pushcart Prize, and multiple citations in Best American Short Stories.

    Most recently, the 2017 National Jewish Book Award, and the inaugural Association of Jewish Libraries Fiction Prize. The Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, said this about Rachel Kadish, that she is “a most gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance narration and the politics of passion.” I could not agree more. I finished The Weight of Ink about five days ago, and I have to say that it knocked my socks off. It's really quite a masterpiece, and I don't say that lightly. Rachel, tell us the story of how this story or these two stories really came to be in your mind.

    Rachel Kadish: Caroline, thank you and thank you for having me. I often start writing when something is bothering me and I don't know quite what to make of it, and I have to make up a story, I have to write something to figure out what I think about it. There's a wonderful quote, Henry James. It says, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" That's often how I work.

    One of the things that was troubling me some years ago was a quote from Virginia Woolf where she poses the question, "What if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister? What would have been the fate of that woman?" Woolf answers her own question and the answer is succinct and depressing, it's, "She died young. Alas, she never wrote a word." Now, I think you can't argue that that is the most likely fate for a woman with that kind of capacious intelligence and talent in that time. Given the realities of women's lives, the restrictions on women's education, the realities of domestic labor.

    It is the most likely fate for a woman in that situation, but I couldn't help kind of shadowboxing with that question, "What would it take for a woman with that kind of talent, not necessarily a playwright, but just someone with that kind of intelligence not to die without writing a word or without creating art of some kind in that time?" I thought, "Okay, I want to write a historical novel to explore that." I went looking for a time period, and there were certain things I was looking for.

    I stumbled across some materials about the 17th-century Jewish community of Amsterdam. I started reading, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. Now, when I say I didn't know anything about this community, I did not know that Amsterdam's Jews were Sephardic. I didn't know they were refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. I didn't know that that community had excommunicated Benedict Spinoza. I didn't know Spinoza was Jewish, I didn't know anything about philosophy. I was really starting from zero.

    What got me was, I was doing some research, and I was reading a wonderful book called Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. In it, she talks about Spinoza’s excommunication. Up until that time, excommunication in this community was not the big scary thing it sounds like, it was a slap on the wrist. It was, "You're excommunicated till you say you're sorry, or for two weeks, and then say you're sorry," and then you can come back. It was not that big a deal until Spinoza.

    Then when they excommunicated him, they gave him this absolute fire and brimstone ban that was unprecedented. I was reading the language of the ban, it's, "God's fury will smoke against him." I don't know if you've ever had this experience, but sometimes you read a historical document and all the human emotions are right there. I was reading this document and you could hear the fear, these people were terrified.

    I suddenly put it all together in my head, "Oh, they're refugees, they've just escaped the Inquisition, they know how bad things can get, they found this perch of safety in Amsterdam. Here's this guy, and he's messing it up for them," because he sounding, frankly, atheist at a time when people were literally ripped limb from limb for discussing atheism. They were afraid he was going to mess things up for them, so they gave him the hardest fiercest ban.

    When I read that, I thought, "I know these people," because I grew up among refugees. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, my mother was born on the run, and there was something about that fierce determination to rebuild the beauty of that. The fear that everything is hanging from a thread, everything could fall apart at any moment. It was so familiar, even across the centuries and different communities, different issues. I thought, "These are the people I want to write about," and then so I thought, "I'm going to put my woman with a brilliant mind in that community."

    I thought that this-- I would have a blind rabbi who needs a scribe, and he would go-- And I heard about this small hidden Jewish community of refugees in London, and the mission from Amsterdam to go sort of re-educate them. I thought, "Okay, she would be part of going to London, and the rabbi would need a scribe, and so she would get access to these documents in his education women wouldn't normally have." That's how I got started, and then it was improvised. I don't outline in advance, I can't outline in advance. I have the reasons for that. I really just wrote the book in the order in which it appears, and then I had to edit it a lot to make sense of it.

    Caroline: Wow, beautifully stated. All that history that you describe, the meanings, and Spinoza. I knew who Spinoza was, but all of that history came through so beautifully in the novel. I don't want potential readers who are listening to this to be in any way intimidated by that wealth of history and philosophy because what you do Rachel so beautifully is you make it available and you turn it into a page turner.

    Rachel: Thank you. It was important to me. History isn't some abstract thing that-- I think the objection I have to the way history sometimes is taught when we're younger is that it's a list of facts to memorize. In fact, history, it's all around us. We're swimming in it all the time. We're in history right now. History, if it's told properly, should be riveting. It should be scary. When you look back in history, these people weren't walking around knowing where they are in the history textbook. They didn't have the soundtrack from the movie telling them when to be scared because the music gets scary. They were just living their lives and then crazy things happened and that's history. When you tell a story set in history, it needs to be as immediate, personal, and emotional as all our lives are.

    Caroline: What you're describing really resonates in terms of what I felt was perhaps one of the major themes of the story, there were several. One of them through this remarkable character, Ester Velasquez who you created. This woman who inspired you, who never really lived but we wish had. Around her writing and around the other story of Helen and Aaron is the challenge of who owns history, who presents history, who archives it, whose story gets told and how? Who gets credit for it? Could you talk a little bit about that within the book?

    Rachel: Yes. Within the book and in the larger world, it's such an important question. First of all, when there are raw materials, when there are documents, when there are artifacts, who gets them? Who gets to physically hold on to them? We have such a long history in Western culture of plunder of things in museums that were stolen from other people, other cultures. I also think there's the question of who a story originated with, who gets to tell it, and who gets to sort of publicly relate to it. All those politics are played out in the book.

    In the end, I wanted the most expansive view of history that I could come up with. This sense that this is a human story that belongs to all of us. Yet at the same time, I agree with much of what one of my characters is saying about, "People from the outside can't just come in and grab these documents and say, 'This is ours.'" One of the nice things about writing fiction is you can take an issue that is really complicated and that you feel torn about, and you can look at it from a lot of different angles. Rather than having to come out and say, "This one way is the way it is." You said something about Ester, wishing Ester existed. I wish Ester existed too.

    One of the things that I thought about a lot when I was doing the research was about how important it was that every piece of this story be plausible. I was kind of a fanatic about research. I went to some crazy lengths to do the research I needed so that when I was writing a scene, I knew what my 17th-century characters were wearing and how heavy it was, what that clothing is made of. When they're eating a meal, what food is on the table? What are the utensils? What are the table manners? There's a window, what is it that wavery old glass because they couldn't make big panes of flat glass like they can now. What's growing in the garden on the outside? What's the window lever made of? I had to research all of that, and I was very specific about what kind of language I could and couldn't use in the book.

    The reason I was such a fanatic about the research was because I wanted to be able to say at the end of it-- This book took me so long to write. I was never quite sure I was going to reach the end of it, but if I ever reach the end of it and if the book was ever published, I thought, "People are going to say to me, 'Okay, Ester, great character, but obviously, she didn't exist and nobody did what she did,'" because we have the records, and we know that there are six or seven women whose writing-- we have it all from the 17th century, who wrote anything to do with philosophy. It was pretty spare, and all of them, you had to be either royalty, nobility, or childless, usually all three. Certainly, there were no poor people who wrote. There were no poor women. There were no Jewish women who wrote philosophy at the time.

    I wanted to be able to say, "Yes, Ester Velasquez is fictitious, but how do we know that somebody didn't do what she did?" Because if you think about it in order-- If you look back in history, there were so many people who were banned from intellectual artistic activity because of lack of access, because of race, religion, gender. Just because something's against the rules, doesn't mean people aren't trying to do it. People try to do what the grass does, they try to grow up through pavement, most can't. Most of us are defeated, but some people do break through.

    In order to break through, and to live a life of the mind or an artistic life or something like that in that time, a woman would've had to do it under a man's name. We know now that a lot of the music that we thought was written by Felix Mendelssohn was actually written by his sister, Fanny. If there were a woman who did what Ester did and managed to find a way to live a life of the mind, write philosophy, and correspond with other thinkers of her time, which was such a dangerous thing to do. People were killed for things like this. If she managed to do it, she would've had to do it under the name of a white Christian man.

    If people did this, and they did it successfully, nobody knew. That's how you succeeded in doing it. Are we that confident, and I think that hubristic, to think that we have discovered all of the women who wrote under assumed names and made art under assumed names? I assume we've not. I assume that there are some women out there whose work we have seen and heard, we just don't know it's by women.

    Caroline: As I met Ester throughout, I have to say there wasn't any moment when she felt in any way implausible, so I'm so glad you just said what you said. I want to read a section, just actually a very short few lines when Ester is in London and she's discovering the visceral London world. I think these lines, Rachel, foreshadow another major theme in the book, which I found fascinating.

    Here is Rachel Kadish describing Ester out in the city, "An ecstasy of ink. Every paragraph laboring to outline the shape of the world. The yellow light of a lamp on leaves of paper. The ivory black impress of words reasoning line by line. Yet in the confused picture in her mind, the hands caressing and turning those lamp lit pages were not her own but a stranger's. She didn't know which she wanted more, the words or the hands, the touch to her spirit or to her skin." Ester to me and Helen as well felt in both times, and they were far apart, that as women in the world they had to somehow make a choice between the desires of the mind and the desires of the body. How that played out throughout the book was so stunning to me. Could you talk a little bit about that? I don't think it's appropriate to call it a dichotomy but let's call it that just for the moment.

    Rachel: I think that historically and often still today, women are asked to choose between a life of the mind and life of the body. Certainly, in Ester's time, women were given the life of the body and were not really offered a life of the mind. When I said earlier that the women who did manage to write philosophy were, with one exception, all childless. That one exception from the 17th century was Anne Conway. She had one child, but she was nobility, and she had what sounds in modern terms, probably sounds like migraines, so other people took care of her son, and she would take to her bed and write philosophy.

    The life of the mind, the life of the body was not a combination that was readily available to women. It was very important to me that when I wrote the novel, I did not split those parts of my characters apart, even though the world was trying to split them apart. I wanted Ester when she had a thought, it was connected to her life. When she had an experience in her body, it went into her philosophy. When she's ill, when she's in love, all of these experiences, grief, ecstasy, are connected to her philosophy. I did not want to buy into this whole false dichotomy that people are often--

    Because women often have been corralled into this thing: you are either a mother or you are a thinker. You are a woman or you are a mind. You're not both. I remember on orientation trip I took before college, one of the counselors saying to us, and this is a bunch of young women about to start an Ivy League school, saying to us, "There's two kinds of girls, either pretty or smart." That stuff was still going on. I hope it's not now, but it was. I wanted Ester's experience to be fully human, which means she is in a body and she has a mind.

    Caroline: Speaking of fully human, another aspect of the story that I really felt enormously close to was being alone or being aligned with another human being. There were-- I'll try very hard not to give anything away, but there were instances of surprising alliances. Also, many instances of fearing being alone, I think of Mary particularly. It wasn't just the life of the body and the mind in terms of those desires, but the desire for connection and the Jewish community, et cetera. Could you talk-- That felt too to be a big theme in the book. Could you speak to that, Rachel?

    Rachel: Yes. I see it in a lot of situations I look at where very often we have a choice between being in a community and saying what we really think. The ideal kind of community has room for everyone to say what they really think and still be part of the group, it has room for diversity, but many communities don't. Very often-- People find this whether in their-- Whether it's a religious community, a political community, a family, sometimes even a relationship. You face this choice of-- A choice between, "Can I be who I am or can I be with people?" Because sometimes it seems impossible to be both.

    Certainly, for someone trying to do what Ester is trying to do, it's a very stark choice, and yet there are these surprising alliances. Once people start speaking very honestly about what they really feel, they find out allies in places they did not expect to find them. I think that actually goes back to the passage you read about the loneliness of writing and reading, and then the communion in those acts. There's another section later in the book, which I would offer to read but I won't because there's a spoiler in there, [laughter] where Ester talks about the desire-- The physical act of writing and the imagining that there's someone out there who will hear, who will understand, who will relate to those words and connect.

    In a sense, perhaps the friendship pair that means the most to me in the entire book is Ester and Helen even though they never physically meet. Ester is writing these documents in the 17th century as a lone voice not sure anyone will ever read them, saying her papers need to be burned, and Helen is finding them in our contemporary times as a somewhat lonely person who needs something that these papers give to her.

    Caroline: Beautiful. Your words right now Rachel are making me remember. Hopefully, this isn't the line you didn't want to say, but at one point, when Helen is feeling she can't accomplish what she wants to accomplish, she really describes Ester as her beacon, "I can't do this without Ester." It was so beautiful. I guess I want to go from here because we're talking about friendship, we're talking about alliance, we're talking about aloneness or not feeling alone, to family; there are some central families in the story, the Costa Mendeses, the HaLevys. In a certain way, they're not the stars of the story, but they hold important roles. Can you talk a little bit about the role of these families in the story and whether they have any symbolic value in terms of not being alone?

    Rachel: I am now trying to think how to do this without spoilers. I think the the HaLevy family and da Costa Mendes family are the kind of family that are seen as pillars of a community. To put it in modern terms, they show up, they are dressed right, they donate, they support the institutions in the community that are highly visible. There are those who do it with a good heart, and there are those who stop supporting the institutions when they're no longer visible. You see varieties of behavior in those families.

    I think those families as powerful and burnish as they can seem on the outside; on the inside, there's a lot of pressure to not speak your mind, to conform. Certainly the character of Catherine, I think is only freer to speak her mind the closer to her death. I don't think I'm giving away too much because when we meet Catherine, she's older, and she's quite ill. Illness, in a sense, frees her to speak her mind on behalf of her daughter and about what she has seen in the world. There's another character I won't talk about because that would be a very big spoiler, but his difference from his family, it condemns him at a certain point.

    Caroline: I felt reading the book, which I feel when I read a really, really good book, that the structure somehow at the choices that the writer made, and I'm thinking mostly of the structure. I'll just mention that it's these time periods of Helen and Aaron, and Ester in her world are juxtaposed. That feels somehow inevitable. Like there could not have been another way of writing this book, just like there could not have been another way of painting that picture when it really works. I imagine through the process of writing that that didn't feel inevitable to you. Can you talk a little bit about finding that structure, that way of organizing the book?

    Rachel: I'm not sure if what I'm going to say is going to be the most dissatisfying answer ever or if it'll be quirky enough to be satisfying. I did not plan in advance, I didn't make that outline. The reason I don't is that-- All my students at Lesley know this, they're probably sick of hearing me say this, but I believe in letting character drive everything. For me what plot is, it's not something that I decide on in advance. What plot is, is it's the outcome of an equation, the equation goes, characters plus pressure equals plot, or character times pressure, whatever. You have to know who your characters are, who your people are, and what kind of pressures they're under.

    Everybody's different. You and I are different people. If you put the two of us under an identical pressure, we would react differently. If you put a hundred people under the same pressure, you would have a hundred different reactions, some might be similar but none of them will be identical. That's a hundred different plots. When I'm writing, I have to figure out who my people are and what pressures they're under. I start very simply, I start with an image. I started writing this book with a voice, "17th-century woman," I knew she had something to confess.

    I wrote that first paragraph, it's the opening of the book, "Let me begin afresh, perhaps this time to tell the truth." She's lied before, now she's going to tell the truth. I had no idea what she had to confess, I just knew that she had betrayed someone and that she would do it all over again, but she was sorry she had to.

    Then I wrote those couple of paragraphs. I thought, "That's interesting." Then I turned the page or insert page, return, whatever we do now. I had this image of, I don't know, Judi Dench sitting in her office. I thought there's going to be this British, non-Jewish woman, she's near retirement, she's sitting in her office, and I just started writing her voice, somebody is late, and she's impatient. Then I thought she would have gotten this call to go because somebody found 17th-century documents. Then I just was off and running. Then I thought, "She has a hand tremor," and there's a reason I gave her a hand tremor, and so she would need help with the documents. She gets this cocky American postgraduate student, and that's a pressure because she can't stand him, she doesn't want to need anyone, and she does. How's she going to react to that pressure?

    Then Aaron, the American grad student, he's failing at his dissertation. That's a pressure, how's he going to react? Then I set them in motion, and they just started going, and I feel like I'm following them to see what happens. The alternating between contemporary and historical, it just felt intuitive. I think having grown up around such storytellers and always having this intense history popping into my life; I'm sitting with my mother's family and it's like, "That's when we were in Russian prison, pass the salt." You're used to history just pops up and smacks you in the head when you're not expecting it. You have to figure out what you're going to do with that, you can ignore it or you can interact with it.

    I like that structure of modern characters being faced with a piece of history that pops into their lives and alternating. Also, I it made it easier to get into the 17th century. That stuff is intimidating. 17th century language and history, it's a lot to learn. I didn't want to just dive into the 17th century, I wanted to step in bit by bit with my historian characters. In the end, I feel like the book is structured like a mystery or like a detective story, but because historians are basically detectives, that's what they're doing. They're trying to solve the mystery, and they go down some false roads, and they make some wrong turns.

    Caroline: Everyone is a sleuth, including Ester who's a sleuth of truth, right?

    [laughter]

    Rachel: Yes.

    Caroline: This idea of history far away and recent brings me to a question of the whispered role of the Holocaust in the book. Helen has a relationship to the Holocaust through a love relationship and a trip to Israel which is impactful in big ways, and Aaron too through his falling in love with someone who relates strongly to the Holocaust. Again, I hope I don't give anything away the character that is historically important to Helen's wife. There are several references to his really living through the dead, feeling immersed in the dead, and for that reason, Helen and he have a hard time finding each other, connecting. Am I correct that the Holocaust is a whispered presence, and can you talk a little bit about that?

    Rachel: Absolutely, yes. I think for me, it was just part of the background growing up. It's in there, it's in the backdrop of a lot of what I write. Some of the characters, and I don't mind saying this because I think it comes up pretty early in the book, Helen was in love with a man, Dror, who was a Holocaust survivor. She is grappling with that history, and he's grappling with how to bring her into it because he loves her. He wants to bring her into his world, but he needs to make sure she understands what she's really getting into. I think his biggest fear is probably that she will come with him only so far and then understand what his past and potentially their future living together in Israel in the early days of the state is going to ask of her. His fear is that then she will flee. He wants her to really understand what she's getting into by crossing this line to be with him.

    He has to also make some sacrifices to cross that line to be with her. Those are questions that I grew up around, obviously, I'm a generation or two I guess separated from those characters.

    Caroline: Lovely. I think we were probably nearing the end, and I want to emphasize just the import of the concepts that this book deals with, but also I want to emphasize for no reader to be intimidated by the import of those concepts. Let me engage you for a moment Rachel with those concepts: secularism, religion, truth, nature, just enormous weighty concepts, how one comes to truth. Science is even in there, even though I don't think it's a word yet. Maybe one way to approach thinking about those concepts is to ask you whether any of these concepts in your own mind changed for you in the writing of the book, in the creation of the book.

    Rachel: I should just say when you were talking about weighty subjects that people shouldn't be scared away. I had to get myself not to be scared away, but the fact is that I never took a philosophy class in my life, this vocabulary was very foreign to me. In fact, what I came to understand was that these are just all the same things that we all think about and have been debating about and that my tween and teenage kids talk about with their friends, like, "Do you think the world's good? How can we believe in God after-- fill in the blank, after the Holocaust, after an atrocity, after a mass shooting? How can we believe in God in a world in which there are all the horrible things we see?"

    I was asked at a reading I gave, "Are Ester's philosophical questions your philosophical questions?" I just laughed aloud. My first response, I think I actually said, "I don't have any philosophical questions." Philosophy was so intimidating to me when I started writing this book and it still is. Then I paused and I thought, "No, I actually do have these questions.

    Ester's questions are mine. How do we believe in good in this world? How do we put it all together in our heads?" It's just that there's a philosophical language that goes with that that is not my language. In order to learn that language for the book, I had to do a lot of reading to put thoughts that I'm already having that all of us are already having into that language. It was really hard for me to get that language, unlike those Newton cradles thing with like five silver balls in a row.

    I don't know if this works on a podcast because you can see my hands but the listener can't see my hands. A ball gets pulled back and hits the string, click, click, click and they go back and forth, that was my brain with philosophy. Like I can get one sentence at a time. I can work really hard and understand that sentence, but then it knocks all the other sentences out that I had worked so hard for before. I can only hold onto one thing at a time. At one point I emailed my agent in despair, I said, "I feel like I'm lip-syncing philosophy." I said, "I'm the Milli Vanilli of metaphysics. I can't do this."

    Eventually, when I kept reading it, it started making sense to me. Really all the philosophy language and all of that, it's just a different set of words for what we're all wrestling with all the time; how to be in a body? How to be in a relationship and still be yourself? What do you do when you're in a community, a family, a religious or school community, and everybody says something and you think, "I'm not sure I agree with that"? These are very human questions.

    What I love about studying history is I always have to remember, people 350 years ago, they didn't live on a different plane of existence, they were just like us. They were in bodies, they had these questions, they felt pain, they felt unsure, they thought, "Do I speak up now or do I go along to get along?"

    Caroline: Lovely and gorgeous way to end I think this podcast because, yes.

    [laughter]

    Rachel: Thank you so much for having me.

    Caroline: Thank you, Rachel. This was a pleasure.

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    Announcer: Thanks for listening to episode two of Why We Write. Next week, we've got a fascinating conversation with filmmaker Cheryl Eagan-Donovan who believes that Shakespeare may actually have been an A-list playboy name Edward de Vere. Here is a sneak peek of that interview.

    Cheryl Eagan-Donovan: That people thought, "Okay, if it wasn't the guy from Stratford because there doesn't seem to be any evidence that it was him, who else could it have been?" Francis Bacon was thought to be the writer for many years. People still believe that Christopher Marlowe could have been the writer, and people have said, "It could have been a woman. It could have been Queen Elizabeth who wrote the plays." She clearly used the plays, I think that Shakespeare plays to make statements politically. There have been many candidates over the years, but Edward de Vere I think is still the leading candidate because his own extant poems and letters and his life experience so clearly match the works of Shakespeare.

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    Announcer: For more information on Why We Write and Lesley University, check out our show notes or go to lesley.edu/podcast.

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