Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Q&A with Michelle Cameron




Michelle Cameron is the author of the new historical novel Babylon. Her other books include the novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: You note that this book remained unpublished for more than a decade. Can you tell us more about that?

A: I wrote Babylon while I was first looking for an agent for The Fruit of Her Hands and then while she was looking for a publisher. Because Fruit was published during a recession year, my beloved editor was let go and I lost my advocate at Pocket Books.


This had a direct impact on my sales numbers, particularly when Simon & Schuster decided not to publish a paperback version.


Between the recession affecting acquisitions and my low sales, I received only rave rejections for the new novel. Many editors said they’d “publish this book in a heartbeat if only times were different.”

But times weren’t different and so my agent gave up on submitting the novel. By then, she had offered it widely and I felt I had no choice but to shelve it and move on. But I never lost faith that it would someday be published.

It was when a fellow writer in a Jewish Facebook group mentioned the new Jewish imprint, Wicked Son Books, that I decided to try once again. I’m thrilled to find my faith rewarded after more than a decade and am excited to put the book out into the world now.


Q: The writer Rebecca Kanner said of the book, “To read Babylon is to be completely transported to another time and place. Cameron’s impeccably researched novel is a lush and evocative page-turner.” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the novel?

A: I’m flattered by Rebecca’s description and certainly hope my readers will agree with her assessment!

Researching a novel that took place so long ago is both harder and easier than researching a more contemporary book.


There were tons of sources on Napoleon and his interactions with Jews, for instance, when I researched Beyond the Ghetto Gates. On the other hand, there are also more people who consider themselves Napoleonic experts and who might pick apart my research. (It hasn’t happened yet, but the thought remains scary.)


When it came to Babylon, I felt I had a little more leeway when it came to choosing what to include from my research, because fewer readers would have deep knowledge of the time period.

In many ways, researching this novel was similar to any other of my historical novels – I searched out sources that told me not only the events of the period, but also what life was like.


The food and drink of the Babylonians, the way they built their houses from brick, the dimensions of the Ishtar Gate, the benches where worshippers could rest midway up to the Ziggurat, even the prayers they recited to the gods and the ceremony of “shaming the king” were all found in books and archeological findings about the period.

The real challenge in researching this novel, I believe, came from adapting Bible stories so they at once felt probable without sacrificing the possibility of miracle.


When you look at the Book of Daniel, for instance, there are multiple incredible moments – Daniel’s friends being shut up in a furnace and speaking with angels, the disembodied hand writing on the wall warning the Babylonian king that his days were numbered, the well-known story of Daniel in the lion’s den.


All of these were rendered so that the secular reader has “plausible deniability” when it came to the marvels presented, and yet did not completely dismiss the possibility of miracle. As you can imagine, that was a difficult balance to create!


Q: How did you create your characters, and what did you see as the right blend between fictional and historical?

A: I generally tell my stories by creating fictional characters who live during historic times, and Babylon is no exception.


So Sarah and her family, Amittai and his, are wholly invented people who serve to show how everyday characters would have reacted to the often difficult circumstances of this era. Such secondary characters as the Ibn-Sin, the royal physician, are also imagined.


However, I use actual historical characters where I can. Nebuchadnezzar’s family members, Cyrus, and Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, are all drawn from my research. And, of course, there are the Biblical characters, including all the prophets mentioned in the novel.

As for the right blend of the fictional and historic, I think it depends on the story being told and the author telling it. None of my novels would work if they depended solely on historic characters, but I know wonderful writers who successfully do so.


For me, however, I need the freedom of a fictionalized cast to be able to get deeper into the “respectful imagination” that is such an important part of a historical novel.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I’d like them to better understand the often-neglected history of the Babylonian Exile, particularly how many of the Judeans maintained their faith despite having been stripped of their Temple and the ability to sacrifice, while others succumbed to the very real temptations of the Babylonian Empire.


The Judean methods of preserving their religion via prayer and inscribing the Biblical books of the Torah, Writings, and Prophets is one way that Judaism has managed to survive until today – unlike other ancient peoples who have faded into history and are no more.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on the true story of the Maccabean revolt and the literal and quite brutal civil war between the devout Jews during that period against not only Antiochus and the Seleucid Greeks, but also against their fellow countrymen, the Hellenized Jews.


I began this project before the protests in Israel began, but the current divisive factions are serving as a source of research for me – a fact I regret with all my heart.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m hoping to extend my readership beyond my typically Jewish reader this time around, due to the Biblical heritage depicted in this novel.


I’m taking a leaf out of Anita Diamant’s playbook: When The Red Tent was about to be remaindered, she had the brilliant idea to bring the novel to the attention of Christian clergy – which helped her achieve well-deserved bestseller status.


I have hope that one way to combat the current worldwide rise of antisemitism is by reminding readers of the Biblical roots that we share, even if our interpretations may differ.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle Cameron.

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