Rachel Kadish just published her third novel The Weight of Ink, a work that layers Jewish history with an exploration of female scholarship across centuries. We asked Rachel, who received Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowships in 2002 and 2008, about the novel, its debt to history, and the interest and surprises of her fascinating story as a writer.
Can you talk about what sparked The Weight of Ink? And what has been its journey since that initial spark?
I often start writing when something is troubling me and I can’t work out why. There are things I come to understand only through writing fiction: stepping into the fray with a set of characters and living the problem alongside them for enough pages to see it through. Years back, there were a few things troubling me, and one of them was that question posed by Olive Schreiner and then later and more famously by Virginia Woolf: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister? What would her fate have been?
Woolf’s succinct answer – she died without writing a word – haunted me. I kept asking myself: what would it have taken for a woman of that era with a capacious intelligence not to die without writing a word?
And what if such a woman were further hampered by being poor… and perhaps a member of a religious minority…what would it have taken then?
For one thing, she would have to be a genius at breaking rules.
It took me a long time to write this book. I started out with a voice: a seventeenth-century woman confessing to a betrayal.
When I wrote those paragraphs – which are now the prologue to the book – I had no idea who this woman was or what betrayal she might possibly be confessing. So I switched to modern times and wrote a first chapter set in contemporary London, in which historians are called in to examine papers found in a seventeenth-century home. The main historian, Helen Watt, quickly notices something odd about the papers…
But I wasn’t exactly sure what odd thing she would notice, so I switched back to the seventeenth century, creating the character of a blind rabbi and the young woman who scribes for him. The young seventeenth-century woman is restless and it turns out she wants to be part of a forbidden conversation… but I wasn’t sure exactly what that conversation was, so I switched back to the contemporary timeline to see if maybe those modern characters could shed any light on the situation…
I went back and forth like that, from the past to the present and back to the past. As I went, I wove fictional material around facts and historical figures of the time, and soon the outline of a story emerged. I wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear. I later tidied up details so it would all read more smoothly. I was never bored as I worked, because most of the time I honestly had no idea what was coming next or how the puzzle presented by the seventeenth-century papers might resolve.
I don’t recommend writing this way – my writing process would have been much shorter and easier if I’d simply outlined a plot and written it. But I can’t bring myself to do that. Plot doesn’t make sense to me in the absence of unique characters acting in real time on the page. I have to figure out who my characters are, and while I’m doing that I spend time with them sentence by sentence and scene by scene to understand what pressures they’re under. Then those characters do things in response to that pressure. Each individual responds to pressure differently – that’s why I can’t foresee the plot until I know who my people are and what specific pressures they’re under. Characters plus pressure equals plot. That’s the equation I have to work through to write fiction. I don’t know any shortcuts.
The research also took an enormous amount of time. That’s one reason the book took so long to write – 12 years.
When you’re writing historical fiction, what do you owe to the real-life events and details of history?
The real-life events and details of history are the best artistic grist and catalyst anyone could ask. Truly – you couldn’t make up a richer basis for a novel than the actual backdrop of the time period I wrote about. The ongoing Inquisition, political instability in England, the precarious position of London’s Jews, the plague, the great fire of London… the drama writes itself. But that drama doesn’t come for free – you pay a price in hard work. I take factual accuracy and plausibility seriously, to a degree that many might find absurd. But I’m absolutely committed to the notion that every single detail in the novel should be as accurate as I can make it, so that even for readers who are educated about the time period, no anachronism breaks the illusion.
While researching the novel, I read more books and articles than I care to count… I spoke to conservationists and historians of several specialties. I researched the histories of things like glass, coffee, clothing, mirrors; I learned how to write with quill pen and ink. I worked a long time to find a seventeenth century language that felt both accessible and evocative of the time period – in the end, I used a relatively straightforward and modern sentence-structure while adhering to the vocabulary of the seventeenth century. I went so far as to set myself a rule: if a word wasn’t in use in the seventeenth century, I couldn’t use it in the seventeenth century chapters of the novel – not in dialogue and not even in a passage of narrated description. So, for example, the character Ester isn’t Mary’s “chaperone” – because that word wasn’t used, according to Merriam Webster, until the 1700s. So Ester is referred to in the novel as Mary’s “companion” or “duenna.”
Relatedly, how does research interact with your creative impulses?
Someone recently asked a question about when I knew it was time to stop researching and start writing. It’s a question that probably makes sense for many writers, but it’s not the way I work. For me, research and writing are interwoven: I research enough to get started, then I write until I stumble on a question or area of ignorance that brings the writing to a halt, so I stop writing and do a little research…then back to writing again, until I can’t proceed without the next bit of information… that’s how it goes. Back and forth. The idea that I might research first and write afterward feels as impossible to me as the idea of swimming a mile by first doing all the breathing, then all the swimming.
Can you point to a through line that connects all of the things you decide to write about, as a literary artist?
I’m probably too close to my own work to be able to see bigger patterns. But I know I often like writing about characters who are considered difficult, and I often write about people who put honesty before comfort (their own comfort and other people’s). I like the challenge of getting behind thorny behavior, and finding out what’s really going on inside – where the vulnerability and fear and courage are hidden, and how all those things operate together to produce behavior that sometimes misfires completely, and sometimes is emotionally heroic. I find it very rewarding when those tough characters crack open.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2002 and 2008 Artist Fellowships? Where were you in your career?
Yes! When I got the news of my first fellowship, I was working on the novel that would become Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. I was also six months pregnant with my first child, and not quite sure how I was going to balance motherhood and writing. I remember leaving the small office I’d been renting in order to work on the novel, and making my way across the Cambridge Commons and boarding my bus home, and thinking: it’s going to be okay. That Mass Cultural Council fellowship was a gift of not only financial support, but confidence.
By 2008, when I was fortunate enough to receive the second fellowship, I was deep into research on the book that would become The Weight of Ink. I knew writing this book was going to be a very long haul. I was sitting in my writing room, which is a converted shed next to my house, and just slogging away, when I got the news. So there was the Mass Cultural Council again – and again it had my back, and put wind in my sails when I needed it the most.
What other artists, in literature or otherwise, interest and inspire you?
My favorite writers are often those whose voices incorporate a larger sense of history – writers who ask the hard questions about what we’re all supposed to be doing here as human beings. Right now I’m revisiting a lot of James Baldwin. And David Grossman and Alice Munro and Toni Morrison… It won’t surprise anyone that I loved A. S. Byatt’s Possession. I’m also a bit obsessed with plays. I see whatever I can on stage, and I’m at the Boston Theater Marathon every spring.
But music is just as important to me as literature. These days I’m listening to the Idan Raichel Project a lot – I love what they’re doing on both musical and political levels.
What’s the most surprising response to your writing you’ve ever received?
When I published Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, which is set in a particularly dysfunctional English department, several people told me they knew exactly which dysfunctional English department I’d been writing about, down to one-to-one correspondences they apparently saw between my characters and actual people. In each case, the person named a different university he or she was convinced I’d been writing about.
In truth I didn’t base the departmental dynamics on any actual place – I just spoke with friends who taught at a number of different universities and asked whether the fictional scenario I was describing would be plausible in a particularly dysfunctional department.
I’d worried that the department I’d described might be implausibly dysfunctional. Evidently not.
What are you working on next?
At the moment I’m focused on doing what I can to help The Weight of Ink take its first steps out into the world! But I do have an idea that might or might not grow into a next novel… I’ll let you know in a year!
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, as well as the novella I Was Here. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere. Along with her Mass Cultural Council awards, she has been a fiction fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and has received the John Gardner Fiction Award and the Koret Foundation’s Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award, among other honors.
Images: cover art for THE WEIGHT OF INK by Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017); Rachel Kadish, photo by Neil Giordano.