Dara Horn is the author of the new novel Eternal Life. Her other books include A Guide for the Perplexed and All Other Nights. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the City University of New York, and Harvard University, and she lives in New Jersey.
Q: You note that you read a number of news stories about companies seeking to solve the issue of immortality--but that the people involved in the stories were mostly men. What made you decide to create your immortal character Rachel?
A: Exactly that. It wasn’t just these “life extension” enthusiasts (not all of whom are men, but the most flamboyant “I’m going to live forever!” ones mostly are). It’s also the entire literary history of the idea.
Immortal characters are nothing new in literature, right? Tuck Everlasting, The Highlander....the Epic of Gilgamesh....immortality and the quest for it is a theme as old as literature. But what’s weird about those stories is that they’re almost never about fertile women. And when you swap out that 2,000 Year Old Man for a 2,000 Year Old Mom, the whole story changes.
My main character Rachel has been married dozens of times and has had hundreds and hundreds of children—and outlives them all, which makes immortality less fun. Once I switched the gender on the typical story, so many differences between men’s and women’s historic experiences just became so obvious, and the character became someone really different from anyone I’d met in other books.
Q: What sort of research did you do to create the historical scenes in the novel, particularly those that take place 2,000 years ago?
A: As an observant Jew, I was already quite familiar with that period; things like the ancient Temple rituals, the failed Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem are things that are really vividly memorialized in traditional Jewish texts.
In writing the novel, I did go back to a number of these texts, including parts of the Talmud that describe this period, and I also re-read the works of Josephus, a Roman Jewish historian who wrote about these incidents in great detail.
But a lot of it also comes from the city of Jerusalem itself, which is a city with so many physical layers that simply going below street level means going back in time.
Several of the book’s key scenes take place inside Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a water tunnel carved 3,000 years ago to protect Jerusalem’s water supply from an Assyrian siege. Today you can walk through this tunnel as a tourist, with a flashlight and water shoes. It’s like you are traveling through time instead of through rock.
Q: What do you think the story says about the relationships between parents and children?
A: There is a kind of parenting culture today that often promotes an illusion that what we do for our children directly affects the kinds of people they become—not merely in providing for them physically and emotionally (which does matter, of course), but that you can train them to emulate your manners and so forth.
I have enough children myself (four) to know that you really have no control at all, and when you think you do, it’s probably just a coincidence.
My main character has had so many children that she sees the precise limits of what parents can do for their children. She experiences the unfathomable pain caused by not only a child’s death but also by less dramatic and more chronic losses, rejections and disappointments—and she encounters the unmovable reality that a parent’s love remains undiminished by any of the above.
I don’t think there’s much more you can actually do for your children beyond loving them. But that’s more than enough.
Q: The novel includes many references to technology. How do you see the impact of that technology on the issues you tackle in the novel?
A: Yes, I wrote about Bitcoin before it was cool! And gene therapy. Those two technologies in particular wind up being pivotal to the plot, in ways I won’t describe to avoid spoilers.
But what was exciting for me in writing about these cutting-edge technologies was filtering them through my immortal character’s perspective. The reality is that everyone always thought they were living in modern times; everyone was always amazed by their brand-new technologies that were about to change the world, even when those technologies were things like... wheels.
Rachel, my main character, looks at her son’s work in currency mining and her daughter’s work in genetics and can’t help being reminded of other children, like the one who created a mechanical water clock, or the one who figured out how to rub moldy bread on a wound, or the one who opened a bindery for books when everyone was still reading scrolls.
The fear of technology comes in part from a failure to take the long view and see how durable human nature is, for better and worse.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Believe it or not, I’ve actually written a TV show. After I finished revisions on this book, I had an amazing idea for a TV series—an idea so good that I can’t believe it doesn’t already exist. To my astonishment it doesn’t, so I wrote the pilot and developed the first season myself. If you know people in the industry, be in touch and I’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dara Horn.