I’m always glad to have the oppurtunity to interview Dara Horn. She’s one of my new favorite writers, one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and a very interesting person to boot. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard, is a mother of three, and she is only in her early 30′s. I first interviewed Dara Horn in 2007 after being wowed by her wonderful novel, The World to Come. BGB reviews of The World to Come can be read here and here.
Her new novel, All Other Nights, validates the grand pronouncements of those Granta people. It is a wonderful novel. (Check out my review of All Other Nights.) In this interview I fearlessly showcase my ignorance of Jewish culture, a few plot points, and a thematic element or two. Dara Horn, a gracious and generous interviewee, is fascinating as always.
Baby Got Books interview with Dara Horn, author of All Other Nights
(Photo: Michael Priest)
books, but All Other Nights seems to be a more straightforward (and action-packed) story. Was it your intention to do something different
with this novel?
Dara Horn: Yes, it was intentional. Like most readers, when I read a novel I enjoy, I immediately return to the bookstore or library to find other books by the same author. The pleasure usually continues for one or two more books, but then it abruptly ends as I realize that the author is actually writing the same book over and over. I remember loving Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and then enjoying
Norwegian Wood, and then feeling less inspired by A Wild Sheep Chase. By the time I got to South of the Border, West of the Sun, I just thought, “Gee, I wonder if this will be a novel about a disaffected man on a quest involving a disappearing girlfriend, a hidden history of suicide, and submerged guilt about World War Two.” (Yep, it was.) When I started writing a third novel, it occurred to me that I was at risk of repeating myself too. So I didn’t.
My two previous novels both were written from many characters’ points of view, with many jumps in time and no attempt at linear storytelling. I always found this to be an easier way to write a book, because if one storyline wasn’t working out, I could always skip to another until I recovered momentum on the first one, and the stories ended up reinforcing one another. But I often wondered whether I could ever write a “normal” novel—from one character’s point of view, with everything happening chronologically, with no narrative tricks. It turned out that I could.
All Other Nights is a Civil War spy novel, as you’ve noted, told from the perspective of Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army who is sent to New Orleans to assassinate his own uncle. Things proceed downhill from there, and the book is full of all kinds of plot twists and adventures. But since I’m still me, it is still grounded in themes I’ve explored in other books—little-known aspects of Jewish history, the drama of how families shape our lives (with or without our awareness or approval), and how we make the moral decisions that define us.
BGB: Both The World to Come and All Other Nights are similar in their use of historical figures that play central roles in the plot and
themes. As a reader, I feel that I’ve learned something new from both novels about fascinating figures both well known and virtually unknown
(to me). It is clear that a tremendous amount of research goes into your novels. Can you tell us what your research process is like?
DH: I wrote The World to Come while completing my doctorate in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and the research I did for that novel was part of
my doctoral work. I have no academic background in the Civil War, though I’ve written about it for American Heritage magazine, where I once spent a summer as a fact-checker. At first I was a bit intimidated by everything I had to learn—especially since my old fact-checking job left me with a visceral fear of Civil War buffs. But I discovered that after doing a doctorate in Yiddish literature, researching the Civil War was relatively simple: Everything was in English! And the books were right in the library, and could even be checked out! In Yiddish literature, I had to go on goose chases through archives to dig up microfilm of the most basic resources. But for the Civil War, everything is right there in bookstores for you—or even on your home computer. I bought the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion”—the U.S. government’s compilation of all military documentation—on CD-ROM. Even the internet had astonishing resources. The Library of Congress’s website, for instance, has transcripts of interviews with elderly ex-slaves that were done during the Great Depression. My description of the slave auction was drawn from those interviews, as well as from an 1859 newspaper article by an undercover correspondent who covered the largest slave auction in American history (also available online).
A lot of this novel was inspired by things I discovered during my research. But “research” makes it sound arduous, which it wasn’t. The more I read, the more material I had to work with to make the story more compelling. One female Confederate spy, for instance, knew how to dislocate her jaw at will—something that became a plot point in the book. I couldn’t have made that up. As the story took on its own trajectory, I was able to expand the plot while respecting the boundaries of historical fact. The major mystery in the book, involving Lincoln’s assassination, unfolds in a way that may never have happened in reality, but which is well within the limits of the possible. Now I just have to sit back and wait until I hear from the Civil War buffs, or someone’s enraged descendants. I hope they’ll cut me some slack.
BGB: The afterword of All Other Nights indicates that the story was inspired, in part, by a trip that you took to a New Orleans cemetery. Your character Jacob Rappaport finds himself in different cemeteries in two important scenes in the novel, and it is remarked upon that ”his family was descended from the Biblical high priest and there was a Hebrew law that forbade them any contact with the dead.” I’m unfamiliar with this law, and it seems important thematically. Can you tell us a little about it and what the rationale might have been for that kind of prohibition? How is a high priest different from a rabbi? (Is he?) How would a lineage be traced back over that kind of
DH: Jacob actually finds himself in cemeteries three times in the novel—the book’s final scene is a showdown in a graveyard. And as you
point out, he shouldn’t have been in any of them.
Jacob is what is known in Hebrew as a cohen, which is a direct descendant of the Biblical high priest. (This has nothing to do with rabbis; rabbis are scholars and teachers by training who have no special lineage.) In the Hebrew bible, Moses’ brother Aaron is appointed as the high priest, who represents the Israelites in divine services that involve killing lots of goats. Aaron’s male descendants are appointed to serve as priests in this fashion in the Temple in Jerusalem. To perform their responsibilities, they must observe certain laws intended to preserve the purity of the priesthood, one of which is that they are not supposed to have any contact with the dead
(including entering a cemetery). Since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70, these descendants are expected to maintain these strictures in case the messiah should arrive and the Temple should be rebuilt.
Believe it or not, certain Jewish families today trace their lineage to Aaron and his sons, and continue to pass on this legacy through male descendants. Families with surnames like Cohen, Kohen, Kagan, Kahn, Cohn or Katz (a Hebrew abbreviation for “righteous priest”) are usually part of this lineage, as are some other surnames, including Rappaport. (And believe it or not, DNA studies have confirmed that more than 75% of men with these last names share a single male ancestor.) Religious families, like Jacob’s in the book, still maintain these laws to this day.
I gave Jacob this lineage in the novel because it underscores how people bring their own unshakable histories with them to America, a place where the national mythology is centered around the idea that we are all supposed to be self-made people, freed from any obligations to the past. But it is through the cemeteries in the book that Jacob, a child of immigrants, sees how people have put down roots in America, tying themselves to the land in a way that their lives never did. When I visited the old Jewish cemetery in New Orleans in 2002, I was surprised to see graves from the early 1800s. I hadn’t been aware of how deep the Jewish community’s roots were in the old South. To Jacob, that awareness makes him reconsider what it means to be an American—that being an American doesn’t necessarily mean being a person without a past.
BGB: When you were here last, you mentioned that one of the themes of All Other Nights is “a story about loyalty, about how we decide who
deserves our devotion, and why.” Viewed in this light, the character of Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, seems especially fascinating. Benjamin was the only member of the Confederate Cabinet that did not own slaves (while on the Cabinet), and he proposed freeing slaves to join the fight against the Union. It is also made clear that as a Jew, Benjamin was viewed as a second-class citizen. It seems difficult to ascribe his loyalty to the Confederate cause as anything more than geography – previously serving as a US Senator from Louisiana, it was where his home was. In the afterword, you seem sympathetic to the idea of Benjamin as misunderstood. What do you think drove his loyalty to the Confederacy?
DH: It would be misleading to suggest that Judah Benjamin was some sort of closet abolitionist. In fact he did at one point own a plantation, and his plan to emancipate slaves who agreed to serve in the Confederate army was motivated more by the army’s lack of manpower than by any sense of justice. But your suggestion that his loyalty to the Confederacy was due only to “geography” makes it seem much less significant than it was.
I think Benjamin had the immigrant’s bottomless gratitude for the places that accepted him and allowed him to maximize his talents, in a way that few places in the world would have at that time. He was born in the Caribbean to an impoverished Jewish family that moved to North Carolina and then to South Carolina when he was a young child. He was an intellectual prodigy who was admitted to Yale Law School at age fourteen, and as an adult he rose to prominence as a lawyer in New Orleans and then as a politician. In a sense, Jews benefited from the South’s institutional racism; in the South they were mostly considered “white”, while in the less racially diverse North, they were
considered ethnic. (It was a Northern general, Ulysses S. Grant, who expelled the Jews from territories he conquered in the South.) Benjamin’s loyalty to the Confederacy—to the point of even taking the blame for other Confederate leaders’ mistakes—was a reflection of his devotion to America, and to the part of America that he had served all his life. It was only after his crazy escape to England (he disguised himself as a Frenchman, walked across Florida, found a safe-house by following a talking parrot, survived two maritime disasters and more) that it was clear he wasn’t willing to die for the cause.
But his loyalty wasn’t rewarded in kind. Benjamin endured a lot of abuse in the press and from his colleagues. He is also a very cryptic figure in history: he didn’t have many close relationships (his wife essentially abandoned him, spending most of their marriage in France), and unlike most public figures who kept diaries and wrote memoirs, he burned all of his personal papers. I saw his life as a revealing and somewhat painful example of what a person of his background at the time had to give up in order to succeed in public life.
BGB: What was your favorite part about writing this book?
DH: Making up a story that would be fun to read! There’s a disdain for traditional storytelling in a lot of contemporary fiction, where literary authors are expected to be “experimental” in order to be taken seriously. But I think that readers still want what readers in the nineteenth century wanted, which is a great reason to turn the page and wonder what happens next. It is very liberating to write this book with all kinds of action-adventure moments, without irony—there’s a shoot-out at a wedding, for instance, and a murder, and a prison break (or three), and a kidnapping plot, and many other twists that I’ll avoid spoiling. It was as fun to write as I hope it will be to read.