The Red Tent – Frequently Asked Questions
How did you do your research?
My research focused on the everyday life of women in the ancient Near East. I consulted rabbinic sources very little and concentrated instead on the food, clothing, social organization, architecture, and medicine of the era –ca. 1500 BCE.
I was the recipient of a library fellowship at Radcliffe College at the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women, which permitted me access to the entire Harvard Library system. As a visiting scholar of the Brandeis Hadassah Institute, I also had access to the Brandeis library system.
Was there really a red tent in ancient times?
I did not find any evidence that women in this period of history in what is now Iraq and Israel used a menstrual tent. However, menstrual tents and huts are a common feature in pre-modern cultures around the world, from native Americans, to Africans. The rendering of what happened inside the tent in the novel is entirely my own creation.
What exactly are the midwife’s “bricks”?
Whatever they were exactly, these bricks are nothing like the building materials we know today. Midwife’s bricks, which I found mentioned in various historic sources, were probably flat and certainly large enough to stand on. There is some debate about what they were used for. They may have had a purely “magical” function, or they may have helped laboring mothers keep their footing while squatting to deliver babies..
How long did it take you to write The Red Tent?
I worked on the novel for three years, while I was also writing Choosing a Jewish Life and magazine articles.
What is your work process?
I try to write every day. I have a home office, which is where I do most of my work. While writing The Red Tent, I also had an office at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. I finished the manuscript in a rented vacation cottage in Gloucester, MA.
How is it that the female characters worship gods other than the god of Jacob?
The Bible mentions the presence of “teraphim,” which are household idols/gods in the house of Laban. During this historical period, people worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, including the family god or El (a generic name for “god”) of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This took place long before Sinai and the Ten Commandments. One of them, “You shall have no other gods before me,” seems to recognize the the existence of other dieties.
What led you to characterize Rebecca as you did?
My rendering of Rebecca was inspired by the biblical account of her as a fierce, headstrong woman. She knows which of her sons is chosen by God, and she manipulates one son against the other, and deceives her husband.
Why did you change the rape to a love affair?
I could never reconcile the story of Genesis 34 with a rape because the prince does not behave like a rapist. After the prince is said to have “forced” her (a determination made by her brothers, not by Dinah), he falls in love with her, asks his father to get Jacob’s permission to marry her, and then agrees to the extraordinary demand that he and all the men of his community submit to circumcision.
What is your Jewish background/education?
I did not have a formal Jewish education as a child nor was my family especially observant. I began to study Jewish literature, culture and texts as an adult learner and still consider myself a beginner.
Where did the idea for The Red Tent come from?
I had just turned 40 and needed a new career challenge after writing non-fiction for 20-plus years. I decided to try my hand at fiction and turned to the most venerable source for story ideas: the Bible. Although I began thinking that I would write the story of the relationship between Rachel and Leah, but Dinah’s silence inspired me to tell her story..
Do you try to write for a specific type of reader?
Not really. But The Red Tent, like my other novels, focus on the daily life of women, and while there certainly are men who are interested in learning more about that, the primary audience for my viction is female. I am delighted by that fact.
To what extent do your own experiences influence your work?
The Red Tent, set thousands of years ago, is far outside my own experience. But I believe that writers bring themeselves to whatever they write. My relationships, my moment in history, my teachers; it all informs what I write.
Are you trying to convey a message in your work?
My primary goal is to provide the reader with meaningful entertainment. I do not have an agenda I’m trying to get across. However, my own beliefs and values are certainly present in everything I write. How could it be otherwise?
Which writers have influenced and inspired you?
Among my favorite writers, authors to whom I return over and over again for inspiration: Pablo Neruda, M.F.K. Fisher, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get your start?
As a child, I wanted to be an actress. I began my career as a writer in my mid-20s, working for Boston-area newspapers and magazines.
How did you make the transition from non-fiction to fiction?
Many of the same skills came into play: library research, interviewing people, and the discipline of writing on a deadline. When I started writing fiction, I joined a writer’s group – a small group that met about once a month, to read, offer suggestions and provide support. The membership of the group has changed over the years, but it remains an important source of support.
What is the meaning of the word, “Selah?”
Selah is a formal prayer-like response; a sort of “amen” said after “amen” has been offered. The word’s meaning and origins are unclear. Selah might have been a musical term, denoting a pause or silence in a song or piece of music. It might also be related to the Hebrew word for “rock” or “stone.” It is not a proper name.
Are you available to lecture?
For information about availability click here.