The Red Tent – Q&A
• The Red Tent takes place very much between the lines of the Bible. Could you describe the creative challenges of essentially inserting your own chapter into the Bible, and of giving flesh and voice to biblical characters? Did it intimidate you?
If you take the time to focus on the words on the page of the Bible, you discover that the language is very sparse. The information that contemporary readers expect of a story – or a myth – are missing: What is the weather like? What time of day it? What do the characters look like and what are their motives, what are they thinking?
I wrote The Red Tent as a novel – not as an extra chapter in the Bible. And writing fiction required me to come up with answers to questions like these. I wasn’t intimidated by the process because I did not think of my work as scholarly or theological. I probably would have been far more tentative and worried had I tried to remain in a “faithful” dialog with the words on the page and the story as given and understood within my religious tradition. But from the start, I intended to depart from the text to make the story my own.
• This is a work of well-researched historical fiction, but are there limits to what one might find in the historical record – how does imagination take up the task when research is done?
My research focused on the everyday lives of women in the ancient Near East. I discovered tantalizing details about those lives – for example, the process of spinning wool was pretty much ceaseless as far as I could tell. There were spindles for use while walking, which suggests that women’s hands were rarely, if ever, idle.
But there was a great deal I could not find. Women’s accomplishments, until the very recent past, have been “written” on the bread they baked, the clothing they fashioned, the children they bore and reared. These are monuments that crumble into dust and that is where imagination took over. In many ways, my research focused on avoiding anachronisms: details and ideas that belong to a later historical period. Thus, there are no chickens or tomatoes in the food that appear in The Red Tent, but I did invent “recipes” based on foodstuffs that would have been available in that time and place.
• Could you say a little bit about how Christian readers have responded to the book and how Jewish readers have responded to the novel as “midrash.”
Christian and Jewish readers have embraced The Red Tent and made it their own. True, there have been outraged emails and letters from people who believe that I took terrible and wrong-headed liberties with a sacred text, claiming that I have misread the Bible, defamed the matriarchs and patriarchs, even charging me with anti-Semitism. A parochial high school for girls tried to ban it from their reading list.
But the truth is, far more Christians and Jews have written to tell me that The Red Tent has opened the Bible to them in new ways, encouraging new insights, questions, and an understanding of biblical characters – especially the women – as real human beings.
Many Jewish readers see the novel as belonging to the ancient tradition called midrash, which is a highly imaginative and creative form of biblical commentary. I am honored by the comparison and I’m sure that my limited reading of midrash inspired me to take liberties with the stories of Genesis. However, I think The Red Tent is a novel that must stand on its own for people who have no connection to or knowledge of the biblical story. That makes it fundamentally different from midrash, which is commentary that reflects back on the original text.
• The Red Tent has found remarkable support among rabbis and Jewish community leaders, and also among Christians, clergy and laity. Did this surprise you?
I am very grateful to clergy for their early and on-going support of The Red Tent. Rabbis, ministers, priests, women religious and other clergy have led book group discussions, assigned it to religion classes, and even preached about it from the pulpit. They have told me that the book is an effective teaching tool, providing a fresh look at the Bible for those who have been reading it for many years, and an open doorway for those who turned away from the Bible long ago. Women clergy, in particular, have written to tell me about the ways that the book has moved them and their congregants.
I was not entirely surprised by this reaction because I see my book as an expression of the spirit of our times. I am a member of a generation that includes a large community of learned and learning women of faith; The Red Tent grows out of this new and vital tradition.
• The novel has proven a success among women of all generations, sometimes within the same family: grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. Can you share some of the responses you have received from readers, and tell us why you think so many people identify with the book?
At one of my earliest readings, three women introduced themselves as three generations of the same family and told me that the fourth – a great-grandmother – also enjoyed the book. I was surprised and moved by that meeting, and have since heard from many families who have shared the book through the generations.
Readers identify with The Red Tent for many reasons. Book group members tell me that it had inspired conversations about everything from the experience of childbirth, to mother-daughter relationships, to the importance of women’s friendships, to the role of women in their religious traditions. Many readers say that they love the book because of the way it affirms the essential dignity, power, and integrity of women’s lives.
• Do you feel that men and women read the Hebrew Bible in fundamentally different ways?
Although there are important and visionary exceptions throughout history, I believe that men and women have read the Bible essentially the same way because everyone viewed it through the same theological/historical “lens.” To this day, virtually no one reads the Bible without a specifically religious interpretive framework, Jewish or Christian.
However, in the past few generations, the work of feminist theologians and artists has provided a new lens and new perspectives. Thanks to them and the conversations they have engendered, we are aware of the silences in the Bible – such as Dinah’s silence. We wonder about the women who are only mentioned in passing and also about the barely hinted at experience of women who are prominently featured – from Rebecca in the Hebrew Bible, to Mary in the Christian Bible.
Today, a great many women – in all faith traditions — read the Bible with a heightened sensitivity to the presence and absence of the women characters. The truth it, the same can be said of many men of faith as well: the conversation has changed for everyone.
• How did you come to have the idea of the red tent itself, did it occur to you early in the writing process, or did it evolve with the novel’s creation?
First, it’s important to note that I have never claimed that the women of the Bible actually used a menstrual tent; there is no historical evidence to support such acclaim. However, since there have been menstrual tents and huts throughout the pre-modern world, it seemed historically plausible to give them one.
The importance of the tent developed in the process of writing, but the idea of making it a place of community, rest, and celebration predates The Red Tent. Some years prior to starting the book, I heard a lecture by the Jewish writer, Arthur Waskow, who suggested rethinking a biblical law that required separation of a woman from the community for 60 days after the birth of a girl compared to 30 days after the birth of a boy. From a feminist point of view, this could be seen as a reflection of the notion that girl babies made mothers more “unclean”than boys. Waskow asked us to consider a different theory, no less feminist, but far more interesting to me. Perhaps, he said, this was an acknowledgment that giving birth to a birth-giver was a more sacred, a more powerful experience. The extra month could be seen not as a punishment, but as a reward.
• What do you see as the differences between a writing a novel about an historical subject, as opposed to writing a story set in contemporary society?
Historical fiction requires a leap of the imagination into a world that looked, tasted, and smelled different from our own. The characters of The Red Tent lived without clocks or calendars, so their experience of time was nothing like ours. In The Last Days of Dogtown, a novel I set in the early 19th century, a distance of only a few miles became a prohibitive journey in the deep freeze of a New England winter. You have to exercise certain imaginative muscles to enter an earlier mindset. One of the more subtle challenges in writing historical fiction is the need to set aside modern assumptions about what is good, bad, or necessary for a life well-lived. For example, in The Red Tent, I tried to treat polygamy as a simple fact, without making a moral or ethical judgment about the practice.
Writing the contemporary novel, Good Harbor, was more daunting in a way because readers know the world that I’m describing, so I felt the margin for error was much smaller.
• The Red Tent has been published in twenty-seven countries; do you find that responses to the book vary significantly around the world?
Remarkably, the responses are quite consistent. Regardless of their origin – Australia, Israel, Latin America — questions about the research and reactions to characters and themes are very similar. The ease of communication through email makes me feel like a part of a world-wide community of readers, and since the vast majority of my correspondents are women, their responses tend to affirm my belief that what unites is far greater than what divides us.
• Are there any other parts of the Bible that you have considered re-writing, or imagining more fully?
Many readers have asked if I plan to revisit the Bible as a source for another novel. I’ve learned never to say “never,” but my answer, for now, is no. I like to take a big risk each time I attempt a work of fiction, to challenge myself with new situations and new settings. The truth is, stories have a way of finding me, rather than the other way around. I have come to trust this process, which remains a wonderful mystery. The road twists and turns, and I have confidence that I’ll discover my next project, unforeseen and new, somewhere up ahead.