Writing a novel about Jews set in 1942—without Hitler: "Once you mention Hitler’s name, his mustache is in the room. The stakes change"

Salon talks to Emily Barton about "The Book of Esther," speculative technology and feminist rewriting of history

By Elizabeth Isadora Gold

Published June 28, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

Emily Barton   (Penguin Random House/Greg Martin)
Emily Barton (Penguin Random House/Greg Martin)

Emily Barton’s new novel, "The Book of Esther" (Tim Duggan Books), sounds like a slightly skewed coming of age novel. One day, out riding her mechanical horse, sixteen-year-old Esther sees war planes with foreign insignia swooping low over the refugee camp she is clandestinely visiting. Where are we and what year is it? Who are these refugees? And what is a mechanical horse? As with Barton’s previous novels, "The Testament of Yves Gundron" (2001) and "Brookland" (2006) (about the coming of modern technology to an society untouched since the Middle Ages and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in colonial Brooklyn, respectively), this is Barton’s world and we’re all just living in it.

Esther is the daughter of a chief advisor to the leader of Khazaria, a Jewish empire between the Caspian and Black Seas. The refugees are also Jews who have fled a menace in Europe; it is August, 1942, and the Germans are marching to Russia. And mechanical horses are exactly what they seem: an ingenious response to mechanized warfare, invented and designed by tribal warriors used to fighting over great distances on the steppes. Esther takes it upon herself to save her people from the German threat, leaving her father and fiancé, journeying to a legendary village of kabbalists in the desert, and ultimately leading an army of golems and renegades.

Barton is an Iowa Writers Workshop grad, a Guggenheim winner, and has taught at institutions ranging from Yale to Columbia to Smith. But over lunch, she’s my nice Jewish girlfriend out in Manhattan for the day. Our conversation ranged from second wave feminism to research techniques to the use of scrunchies. The salads were delicious; I cut out our long digression about baby wearing techniques.

You always immerse yourself in these half-real worlds. Do you do that on purpose? Where does that part of your imagination come from?

That may be from wanting to write about the historical past as it connects to the present without being limited by mere fact. Wanting to be in a space that’s at once historical and imaginative.

How is that different from more conventional historical fiction?

It’s exactly the same thing -- in a slightly different register. Part of what I’m intrigued by is technologies that never existed, and the ways in which things that did not come to fruition sometime in the past might have come to fruition.

Are you a tech or mechanical geek? Are there a lot of David Macaulay books in your house?

We have many David Macaulay books, and I am a bit of a mechanical geek. I was the kid who took apart all the appliances to figure out how they were wired, and then sweating, afraid of breaking them, put them back together.

Your books always have this meeting of speculative technology and feminist rewriting of history. 

You grew up with a second wave feminist mom, too, right? 

Hell yeah.

I’m so grateful for everything they did, both for our liberation and for the liberation of humankind. At the same time, I feel that they promulgated a narrow view of what it meant to be a strong woman. In my own work, I try to convey fully realized women characters, and also all kinds of characters who are nevertheless imperfect. People who have odd predilections, people who have flaws, people who do not always make the best decisions for themselves. I want to be clear that a female character -- exactly like a female person -- can be strong and be herself without being a paragon of virtue. 

They are also allowed to be sexual. Esther is a healthfully sexual person, though her that drive theoretically conflicts with her heartfelt religiosity.

In different drafts of the book Esther was different ages. She fell out sixteen because it seemed old enough to have the wherewithal to do the things she wants to do, but young enough to be naive enough to do them. And not to be married off yet, because in this culture she is clearly going to be married by the time she’s seventeen. A sixteen-year-old person, regardless of her cultural milieu, is a sexual being, whether she’s given language for that or permission to explore it. The book is not about Esther as a sexual person, or how her particular sexuality or gender expression takes place, but I wanted that to be a fully integrated part of her character. 

I love that she and her bashert (“chosen person” and betrothed) Shimon are so attracted to each other. They want to sleep together and make a married life together. Yet, her attraction for other people -- specifically the mysterious and angry kabbalist Amit -- doesn’t preclude that.

I worked against that narrative of the chosen spouse being the wrong person. That’s a cliché. Love matches aren’t everything (although I feel lucky to have a nice one). It's considerably more interesting if Esther really likes her arranged match. 

I have to interrupt here to report that the author is putting her hair up in a scrunchie.

I like scrunchies! It’s silk. I buy them on etsy -- I’ll send you a link.

They don’t tear your hair if you have curly hair!

Exactly. Let’s see, arranged marriages… One of my friends felt like Shimon is the captain of the football team, but Amit is the rock 'n roll guy who is different but equally attractive. 

Amit drove me crazy.

I’m sorry. 

No, I mean, Amit had a lot going on. (Small spoiler alert.) He joins the kabbalists in order to use their magic to work out his own gender and sexuality.  

True. Although: magic is magic. The magic is there and exists in the universe of the book.

Esther gets different magic than she asked for. But then, everyone does. The golemin become more sentient than anyone expects, as when they pray, passionately.

Golems are what Jewish people have for magic. Once there were mechanical horses -- and there were mechanical horses from day one -- there had to be golems, if it’s a Jewish book. Esther and other characters think a lot about what the mechanical horses and the golems and also Nagehan the messenger pigeon are. Where does their being-ness end and their machine-ness begin, or the other way around? I guess I’m asking the same thing I’m always asking: we’ve made all this stuff, what does it do to our souls? How does it harm them? How does it enrich them? How does it help them grow? I don’t believe that technology has a positive or a negative value; we’re just living with it. But we have to think deeply about how it affects us.

You just said, “if this was going to be a Jewish book.” Is this a Jewish book?

Of course it’s a Jewish book! It assumes a Jewish worldview and then provides contextual detail. I want any reader to be able to enter the book and enjoy it, but I didn’t want it to be told from the point of view of a minority religion. Judaism is the majority religion and the worldview in this world. I hope that readers who are not Jewish will also appreciate and relate to it. I’ve spoken to a couple of early Muslim readers, who feel immense kinship with it, because of the environment, and because Judaism and Islam are brother and sister, and there’s a lot that’s recognizable.

The heartbreak of the book for me was that even in this fictional and magical world, the Holocaust was still happening. Our beloved characters – even the golemin, their whole world -- were all still doomed.

I don’t see that they’re all doomed. That’s a reading that’s available to you. 

I don’t mean to be totally pessimistic, and be like “They’re all gonna die!” 

You can be pessimistic.

Okay. Let’s say I’m optimistic. The book could raise the question, what if the Holocaust hadn’t happened? I mean not even questions of population. We would have a world of Yiddish literature. We would probably have been spared "Portnoy’s Complaint." Would we have gotten Grace Paley? I like to think yes…

[Giggle, subject change.] Would we have right of return to Ashkenaz? Probably. It could be a nation state. We could go live there.

You write a whole book about Jews in 1942 and never mention Hitler’s name.

Once you mention Hitler’s name, his mustache is in the room. The stakes change. In the novel I have written, it’s still possible that whatever gigantic fascist juggernaut is moving across might not be Hitler. That’s very important to me, because Hitler and the Holocaust are so loaded. It’s such a hard thing to write about. Once you really let Khazaria exist in actual Europe in August of 1942, there are many difficult questions that I don’t think a novel is the forum to answer.

Esther’s home is in Europe, not the Fertile Crescent, not the Middle East. Which means you were able to write about Jewish identity without writing about Israel/Palestine.

Yes. Though I do feel that one of the questions the book may raise for readers is that if there had been an autonomous Jewish state in Western Russia for fifteen hundred years, how does that affect the development of the modern state of Israel? I don’t have an answer to that question, but the existence of this nation would have a geopolitical consequence.

Can you tell me about your research process? I know you’re a heavy researcher.

I’m a canny researcher. My aim in research is to come up with enough plausible detail to make it seem real, not to enmesh myself or mire myself in research. Research is such a pleasure that you can just fall down the hole of it for years at a time, and I don’t want to do that. With "Brookland," what has been funny to me is I get these letters… I got one from a Luquer descendant [there is a Luquer family in the novel], and he said, “We’re all redheaded, and I don’t know where you got that information about our family, but I’m so touched and moved.” I’d made it up! With "Brookland," I took the 1767 census map, which I do know how to find, and then I took all the names off it and made characters out of them. I read enough to feel comfortable with the names and landscapes and morals of the time, and I knew how many taverns there were and things like that, but I didn’t spend years on it.

The research for "Esther" was a little more complicated, because not that much is known about the historical Khazars. They vanished from history somewhere in the tenth to eleventh century, and they didn’t leave written records. The American scholar, Kevin Alan Brook wrote "The Jews of Khazaria," which is a definitive history. Arthur Koestler’s book "The Thirteenth Tribe" sent everyone into a tizzy in the '70s, because he argued that Ashkenazim are actually Khazars, and that we bear no relationship at all to the historic Jews. Realistically, we probably are, but I also feel that I have some connection to the Judeans in the dessert two thousand years ago.

Michael Chabon’s novel "Gentlemen of the Road" has Khazars in it. I wrote to Chabon to ask him if he had any sources I didn’t know about. He wrote back and he said, “That’s what so great about the Khazars, is that you can just make this shit up.”

It’s been contested territory as long as recorded history has existed, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to write about it. This tribe stormed in from this place and then took it over, and then that tribe stormed in and… It’s contested, it’s roiling, it’s busy, it’s polyglot, and that’s interesting to me. 

Let’s talk about process a bit more. I had this idea I wanted to talk to you about motherhood and writing and what children do or don’t do to your writing, especially since you and I talk a lot about that privately. Though we also often talk about clogs. You have two children: an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. So…

Well, one thing you might notice is that I published "Brookland" in 2006 and that I’m publishing this book in 2016.

I might notice that, yes.

There is another reason that that happened, which is that from 2006 until the end of 2009 I was writing a different book. In the winter of 2009, I broke my wrist and was unable to type. The book was being written on the computer, and my husband Tom issued me a dare: could I write a 50,000-word potboiler by hand. 

It turns out it was a five-year feminist steampunk kind of novel. Ie: one of your books.

When I set out to write it though, thinking I was going to write a 50,000-word potboiler by hand, it was enormously freeing because it didn’t have any pressure on it. But the question you were asking was about children. They are not intrinsically responsible for the first three or four years of how long it took me to get this book out into the world.

Five years seems like a reasonable amount of time to spend on a novel. You’ve also taught at like ten different places in that time. 

Yes, it’s been enormously complicated. There have been times where I’m teaching – like this year – on three overlapping academic calendars.

I did two this year and it was insane. 

It’s really hard! It’s not like digging ditches hard. It’s not being an EMT. But in order to make ends meet, I teach at two or three different schools, most of which have been a two or three hour commute from where I’m living. All of these things have contributed to how slow writing is. Children rewire your brain, and it’s been three years since I got a full night’s sleep. During the hours of the writing day, between 9:30 and 2:45, which is when the last child is dropped off and the first child has to be picked up, there might be email to answer, laundry to do, groceries to shop for. Again, none of this is a particular hardship -- this is everyday life -- but before I had children, it was possible to set aside five or six hour chunks in which I could simply focus on writing, many days of the week. Writing is a lot slower now because it’s more difficult to immerse myself in that fictive dream that you have to be in in order to write a novel. 

Do you feel as if you get more bang for your buck when you do work? 

I’ve heard people say that [about writing as a parent], but I don’t feel that at all.

I find I have to be both more efficient and more forgiving of myself to get work done now. 

That’s a good way to put it. 

You have these limited hours, and a person who’s disappointed by your lack of presence.

I have two! And one of them is a toddler, and he needs my presence in a way that no other human being ever can need your presence. The other thing is that people have the kind of minds that they have. My mind is one that dreams up gigantic novels as machines that hold onto ideas that are so big that I can’t fit them all in my brain at the same time. A lot of people write novels for this reason. Having children didn’t turn me into a short story writer. Michael Martone has famously said that the reason he writes his amazing, weird, super compressed micro-fictions is that he had a baby, and that was the kind of time that was available to him. I’m just guessing that either I’ll learn to be more efficient, or that somehow as my children get a little bit older, I’ll be able to carve out slightly more meaningful chunks of time.

Or not.

Or not. Or I’ll just keep working on this slow schedule.

I have a friend who was surprised when I told him one of the big changes motherhood wrought for me as a teacher that I don’t answer my students’ emails as much. Prime parenting hours are after work, between say five and nine.

And I also think about the kids between nine and three! They need to go to camp, and they have medical records to send to camp…

It’s raining, do they have boots on? Or it’s not raining and they have boots on, but wearing boots give them foot cramps in the middle of the night…

Oh no! Foot cramps?

Yup, foot cramps. So, in the spirit of mother writers and Jewish books, would you rather be on the Wikipedia page for women writers, Jewish writers, or simply “writers?”

Although I bridle at the ghettoization of writers, I guess put me on the pages for Jewish and for women writers until justice and equality have come to our world.

Elizabeth Isadora Gold

Elizabeth Isadora Gold’s writing about motherhood, books, music, and feminism has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, The Rumpus, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her piece about her postpartum anxiety, “Meltdown in Motherland,” was featured on the New York Times Opinionator blog. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and young daughter. The Mommy Group (Atria | March 1)-- is her first book.

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Books Emily Barton Fiction Jewish Literature Judaism Speculative Fiction The Book Of Esther