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Eternal Life2By BERNIE BELLAN

Dara Horn will be the special guest speaker at the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue on Sunday, May 6. As we’ve noted in the past couple of issues, Dara is an accomplished writer, teacher, and lecturer. Her most recent novel, Eternal Life, which we reviewed in our February 14 issue, has been receiving rave reviews.


In her books Dara offers fascinating insights about Jewish life. As you will see if you read on, she has a particular desire to connect the past to the present. When we spoke with her, we were especially interested in probing the mind of a gifted writer - to try to understand what process she goes through as she creates. What was so surprising to read is that Dara does not plot our her novels in advance. How she comes up with the intricate stories that she weaves is quite amazing.
Not only that – Dara has a strong Winnipeg connection as her husband, Brendan Schulman, is the son of (retired) Judge Perry and Sylvia Schulman.
So, when we spoke with Dara recently, we thought we would begin by asking her about her Winnipeg connection.

JP&N: I’d like to do something that might be a little bit different for you – because this interview is going to be aimed at primarily a Winnipeg audience. How often do you and your family make it to Winnipeg these days?
Dara: Not too often in recent years because my father-in-law is now retired, so they (my in-laws) spend much more time in the States. Also, with four kids, it’s easier for them to come to us than for us to go to them. I was there a year ago. I’d say, every couple of years.

JP&N: Okay, so when you’re coming here in May – have you got a specific title for your lecture yet?
Horn: I don’t have a specific title yet, but it is going to be mainly about the new novel. It’s going to deal mainly with the ‘presence of the past’ and how creativity is motivated by history.

JP&N: Actually, that subject is fascinating for me because I love historical fiction, especially if it has a Jewish theme. There are other writers who I’ve been introduced to because I helped to start a Jewish book club at our JCC a few years ago and it’s forced me to expand my horizons.
I noticed that in another interview you differentiated yourself from Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer, who are probably considered two of the leading contemporary Jewish male novelists.
Is it fair to say that female Jewish novelists have had more of a connection to feeling Jewish than male Jewish novelists?

Horn: I don’t want to speak for other writers – and there’s so much variety. I don’t know how much of it is based on gender, but there’s a sense in which there are fewer expectations of Jewish women (novelists) than Jewish men (novelists), and I think that gives a writer more freedom how to engage with the tradition. How accurate that is, I don’t really know.
I would say that I think what distinguishes my work from a lot of other writers is that I am very motivated by the language in which I’m writing. What I mean by that is I’m essentially trying to turn English into a Jewish language; that is my creative project.
What I mean by that is that I started writing these novels because of studying Hebrew and Yiddish literature and feeling the kind of absence of Jewish literature in English. When I was growing up a lot of Jewish literature in English was mostly focused on questions about Judaism as a social identity, about assimilation, about how much you want to be like your parents or how much you want to run away from your parents, the second generation immigrant experience – something like that – those kinds of social questions.
There wasn’t a lot of engagement with the actual content of Jewish culture and tradition – whether it was because the writers didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the culture and traditions or because that was something they just weren’t interested in.
So I studied Yiddish and Hebrew writers and I was just amazed by how rooted their work was in these ancient texts – and I’m talking about even people who were secular writers, writing totally non-religious stories but it was just a part of their language.
In a sense it was part of their language because they didn’t have a choice. Every language, I think, has a kind of an archaeology of belief that’s built into it that native speakers may or may not hear.
It’s like when you say to someone in English: “Oh, this will happen for better or for worse”, you’re not thinking “I’m quoting the Anglican marriage ceremony”or, when you say to someone: “Go the extra mile”, you’re not thinking “I’m quoting Jesus”. (“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Matthew 5:41)

JP&N: I’m not thinking so much of Eternal Life when I’m asking the following question; it’s more in comparison with the kinds of novels that used to be associated with North American Jewish writers in the 50s, 60s and 70s. There was so much satire involved. Even if they were serious novels, there were stereotypical descriptions of Jews – especially Phillip Roth, but even Saul Bellow. And in Canada our most celebrated Jewish novelist was Mordecai Richler, who was also a master of satire.
The idea of Jews constantly making fun of themselves became a trope. But in recent years we’ve seen so many terrific novels written by Jewish women that have historical themes, including yourself, Alice Hoffman, also someone by the name of Jacqueline Park, who wrote a series of novels centered around an Italian Jewish heroine by the name of Grazi dei Rossi. Those kinds of historical novels must require a tremendous amount of research. How much time do you spend researching your novels before you write them?
Horn: I have a problem with your question. I don’t do any research beforehand. I don’t do any research beforehand because I don’t know what I’m going to write before I write it. I don’t plan my novels in advance. (emphasis mine, simply because I found that admission so surprising.)

JP&N: No?
Horn: No, not at all. I’m writing them exactly the way you’re reading them. I want to know what happens.
JP&N: So you don’t chart them out at all?
Horn: Not even a little bit.
JP&N: Really? It just flows from your pen – just like that?
Horn: That makes it sound easy.
JP&N: No, no, no – I know how hard writing is.

Horn: There’s no plan. Writing is thinking – right? My novels start with a situation – so I get the idea for the situation I want to engage with, then I follow that situation where it leads.
As I follow it (the situation), I find out what I need to know and I find out what the limitations of my knowledge are and, at that point I do the research.
So, in other words, I knew this (Eternal Life) was going to be a novel about immortality. I had a moment where I realized this was going to be a novel about a woman who can’t die. There was a point where I realized this was going to tie back to the Temple (in Jerusalem) and the destruction of the Temple.
It was only when I realized that I’m going to have to there – in the time of the Temple…and look, I have a religious education where some of the sources I already knew, but it was then I realized I have to go and do some research on the Roman period in Jerusalem. I read Josephus and I read biographies of Yohanan ben Zakai - so then you have to do the research so you get the details right, so you have the verisimilitude and know, like what are people eating.
But this (Eternal Life) is a very contemporary story. It’s also a plot that hinges on a bitcoin mining rig. I had to teach myself how digital currency works.
There’s another part of the plot that hinges on gene therapy. I had to teach myself how “Crispr” works. I have to know enough about it so that I can set the story in a realistic way.

JP&N: Of course. I reviewed your novel in our most recent issue. I referred to how contemporary it was. I suppose there’s a danger that if someone reads your novel even just a year from now that what you’ve written about bitcoin mining and gene therapy may already be outmoded. Since I’ve only read one of your novels so far -although I did just start to read A Guide for the Perplexed”, I wonder: Do all your novels have contemporary allusions to what’s going on in the here and now?
Horn: The short answer is yes. I do have one novel that was about Civil War spies (All Other Nights). That novel is set entirely in a historical period, although there are contemporary echoes in that book.
What I’m interested in is how the past resonates in the present.

JP&N: So inspiration – how does it come to you? Does it come in the middle of the night? I don’t have that kind of ability. I’m such a hard ass and such a linear person that I can’t let my imagination wander the way you can.
Horn: Well, it wasn’t in bed; it was rather in the shower. I have four little kids.…so my husband, Brendan Schulman – he’s the Winnipegger, a few years ago, basically as a joke he gave me a notepad that’s waterproof. It’s mounted on the wall of the shower. Basically, that’s the one room in my house where no one is bothering me.


JP&N: So – do you jot down ideas in the shower?
Horn: Well yah; he sort of gave it to me as a joke. ( But all my books dwell with this idea of ‘time’, but I had never done it on a supernatural level, where it has a fantastical premise.
I had previously been on a speaking tour in Australia where I was asked to present a short story – and that was terrifying for me because I had never written a short story. Luckily I had a 20-hour flight to think about it. I had written something about Adam and Eve during Daylight Savings Time – like, receiving an extra hour and what did they do with that extra hour?
It was silly – not pretending to be anything more than that, but it was sort of exciting to me because I was thinking: “What can I do with this idea of time?”
Also, with each of my novels I try to challenge myself and do something that I haven’t done before. A lot of my previous novels had been very multi-layered… a lot of different characters’ points of view, a lot of different time periods…multiple stories going on at once.
I wanted to do something with this novel that was just simple and, by simple, I mean sort of like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, where everything is completely normal, except you just change one thing. I think all of Kafka’s books are like that; everything is normal, except he’s a cockroach.

JP&N: This leads me to ask you a specific question about Rachel in Eternal Life.
(Rachel is the name of one of the two characters who can’t die.) I was reading what others had said about the book on Goodreads (Amazon’s book section for readers who want to read on a Kindle), as well as reviews of your book.
Horn: I don’t read them. What I mean is that I read press reviews, but I don’t read crowdsourced reviews.

JP&N: I like to read those Goodreads reviews because I like to see what insights other people have that I completely missed. For instance, one person wrote that Rachel ends up being burned 17 times. Does Rachel always have to have a violent ending before she begins anew?
Horn: Right – she has to transition from one life to another.

JP&N: So it always has to end violently for her?
Horn: She’s burned alive.

JP&N: She’s not always burned alive, is she?
Horn: Pretty much.

JP&N: But you don’t enumerate every time she’s burned alive so it’s pretty much an educated guess on the reader’s part, isn’t it?
Horn: Yes, yes. I could have written this book a different way. I could have written it as a panorama of these 2,000 years. But I wanted to write this the way a person remembers their life and her memories are not different from your memories; there are just more of them…The presence of the past in your life is the way you experience your past.
It’s funny – you know the Mel Brooks routine about the “2,000 year-old man”? This is the “2,000 year-old mom”. Honestly, she’s been really busy. She barely remembers the first 1500 years.

JP&N: But she does remember some of the old recipes.
Horn: Yes, she does.

JP&N: How long did it take you to write this novel? Was it similar to the other novels you’ve written?
Horn: Yah, they all took about two years of writing.

JP&N: I’m always impressed by how multitaskers like you are so prolific. Are you a disciplined writer? Do you force yourself to write a certain number of hours every day?
Horn: I don’t have a choice. I’m not like one of those writers who has writer’s bloc who says: “I can only write when I’m in the bathtub or when there’s a full moon.”
I write when my children are in school. I have four kids; I’m a very involved parent. I have a lot going on in my life, so I have to be very disciplined.

JP&N: But you’re still teaching, aren’t you?
Horn: I’m not teaching right now. I have taught, but I’m usually not teaching and writing at the same time.

JP&N: I want to switch gears now and find out more about what it was like for you growing up. I know you were a voracious reader as a youngster, but at what point did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
Horn: I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t actually meet any writers until I was in college. My father is a dentist and my mother – she’s now retired – she was a public school teacher, but that’s deceptive because she is a public school teacher with a Doctorate in Jewish Education.
I’m one of four children and my parents really raised us to be a creative collective. What was most important to them was developing creativity. Some of the things that they did, for example, is my mother read out loud to us at every meal.
I now have four kids of my own and I realize that was a very effective management technique. It’s a lot easier to read to them than watch them throw food at each other.
So many things my parents were doing was to engage specifically with Judaism, so there was a kind of thing…

JP&N: I know – I was reading that you dress up as Pharoah during your seders.
Horn: That’s what we do now. We have special effects. We have plague drops that come down from the ceiling.
But when we were younger we were writing parody show tunes; my siblings and I would write songs in honour of people’s birthdays.
It was tied to Judaism as well because my mother is an artist as well and her hobby was to illustrate verses from the Tanach. She does abstract paintings that incorporate Hebrew calligraphy and works from the Torah and Tanach. This was what I was surrounded with as a child – creative engagement with the tradition.

JP&N: Was your family observant?
Horn: We were brought up in the Conservative tradition…but, for instance, all of us were trained to be Torah readers.

JP&N: You get around quite a bit giving lectures all over the place. Are there any observations you can make about the state of contemporary Jewish life in America? For journalists we’re often forced to fall back on the results of the Pew Research Study of American Jews (A Portrait of Jewish Americans, published in 2013). That study seemed to show that identifying as Jewish has diminished substantially among younger Americans who were born Jewish. You’ve been lecturing, teaching, and writing about Jewish subjects. Have you seen any dramatic changes in Jewish American life?
Horn: I think we’re on the edge of an American Jewish renaissance. Even just the fact that my books have such a wide audience…30 years ago nobody would have been reading this book (Eternal Life). The story then was about assimilation; it wasn’t about social identity or engagement with the tradition.
Forty years ago there were stories in Life or Look Magazine about the “Vanishing American Jews” and “if we follow these demographics, in 40 years there aren’t going to be any American Jews”. Meanwhile, now it’s 40 years later and there’s no more Life Magazine.
What we do have is a proliferation of organizations that could not have existed years ago which are sort of reimagining Judaism in really new ways. What I’m thinking about is that when I was growing up there weren’t more than four people who were writing books like this in English. Now there are hundreds of people who are writing books like this now.
If you think about TV, if you think about a show like “Transparent”, for example. These things would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago.
When you think about innovations in religious life – like new religious communities. There’s Lab/Shul in New York and IKAR in California – these are sort of like new communities that aren’t tied to the old model of the synagogue being a building, but rather something that is creative and changing. There are people who are finding new ways of being involved with Jewish life in ways that didn’t exist before.
I think there’s a lot more interest in finding creative ways to engage people. When you think of something like the “Birthright” program – it wasn’t unthinkable in terms of who was going to fund it, it was unthinkable in terms of “who would want to go?”
There was something very anodyne, very anemic about the Jewish community that I grew up in the 1980s. Things are very different now because there are more ways of imagining Jewish life sort of because we’re over this hump of wondering whether we have to be accepted as Americans or Canadians. Having gotten past that there is still the crisis of assimilation where you may have some declining numbers, as people choose not to be affiliated because they have a choice, but there is also the vitality in people who do choose to be affiliated because there’s a new openness to how you define how you want to define what it’s going to mean to be Jewish.
I think when people get upset about things like the Pew Survey, I think about stories about kings – about King Josiah, who was renovating the Temple and they’re basically doing something like redoing the grout in the bathroom and someone finds a scroll and they’re like “Huh - what’s this scroll?” and it’s the Torah, and they’re like “how interesting – we’ve never read this before. Oh look, it says there’s this holiday we have to celebrate. It’s called Passover.”
Then it says that the Kingdom of the Jews celebrated Passover – which they hadn’t celebrated in over 400 years.
We’re doing way better than those people who hadn’t celebrated Passover in over 400 years. There’s so much in the Jewish story that’s about wandering and return. It’s in the Hebrew Tanach that they go and worship other gods and they go and marry other women – and then they come back.
That is the tradition. It’s not a tradition that’s a constant, unbroken thing. The tradition itself is the pattern of loss and return.


Post script: Since I interviewed Dara back in February, I read another of her books: “A Guide for the Perplexed” - another fascinating read. In short order I plan on reading the three other novels she’s written.