A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Libi Astaire
A LITERARY WORLD
Author Interview with Libi Astaire
Welcome to A Literary World and the first interview for 2016. Today’s guest is author and journalist, Libi Astaire, whose books include the Jewish Regency Mystery Series; Banished Heart, a novel about Shakespeare’s writing of the Merchant of Venice; Terra Incognita, a novel about modern-day descendants of Spain’s crypto-Jews; and several volumes of Chassidic tales. As a freelance journalist, her articles about Jewish history have appeared in The Jewish Press, Mishpacha Magazine, and on Aish.com.
1. Welcome to A Literary World, Libi, where do you live?
I live in Jerusalem, Israel.
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about?
My novels usually combine my love of mystery novels and my interest in Jewish history. I like to explore what I call the lesser-known paths of Jewish history—communities and eras that aren’t usually discussed—while the mystery element gives me a defined framework to explore the workings of the human heart.
3. What made you decide to set your mystery series in the Regency era?
That’s a great question, because even though I was a big fan of English history when I was young, I was interested in the Middle Ages and the Tudor, Elizabethan and Victorian eras. I skipped right over the Regency. But by the time I sat down to write my first mystery, the Jane Austen craze had been around for a while and I had begun to read about the era, and I realized that this very colourful period would make a great backdrop for a series. There was so much going on—the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, fortunes being made and lost overnight on the Exchange or in the gambling halls—and so there were plenty of “opportunities” for characters to get into trouble. And there was this Jewish community living in London that practically no one today knows about, including English Jews! So I thought it would be fun to explore this popular era through their eyes.
4. Who was the inspiration for the characters of Ezra Melamed – the wealthy-widower-turned-sleuth, and General Well‘ngone and his master, the Earl of Gravel Lane?
First, I should point out there wasn’t an established police force in England during the Regency. There were Bow Street Runners and private thief-takers that could be hired if a person’s house had been burglarized or they’d been robbed or someone had been murdered. But to hire such a person you had to be fairly well off, and most of London’s Jewish community was very poor. There were a few fabulously wealthy Jewish people, such as Nathaniel Rothschild, as well as a very small middle class, but they were the exceptions.
My fictional sleuth, Ezra Melamed, is one of the wealthy members of the Jewish community. He’s also a “parnas,” an official position that means he’s one of the heads of the community and responsible for what goes on. He reluctantly gets roped into this sleuthing business both because of his official position and because of his personal feelings about righting wrongs and restoring harmony to his world.
Most people think the Earl of Gravel Lane and General Well’ngone were inspired by Charles Dickens’s Artful Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s young gang of thieves, and in a way they were. But the Earl of Gravel Lane is the only character in the series that is loosely based on a real person, a rather charming young “undesirable” that I encountered during my university days.
However, the Earl and General Well’ngone do come from the historical record. Poor Jews, including children, often did turn to picking pockets or stealing clothes or being fences for stolen goods. There weren’t any social services provided by the government at that time, so if you had the bad luck to be an orphan or you lacked the funds to become apprenticed to some skilled artisan or you were too sick to do physical labour, it was just too bad. You had to get by on your own, and that often meant turning to the only profession available to you: crime. The Jewish community did run a small orphanage and opened a very small school during the Regency period, but it was like a drop in the bucket.
5. Your stories conjure up the world of Dickens; pickpockets and the workhouse, the drawing rooms of the privileged classes, etc. Was Dickens a source of inspiration for you? Which other writers of the period inspired you?
I love Dickens, but the negative stereotype that he created with his character Fagin has definitely caused a lot of heartache for the Jewish people (like Shakespeare’s Shylock before him). So I suppose that in a very small way I’m trying to rectify the historical record. Yes, there were Jewish criminals, but there were also middle-class Jews like my Lyon family who were honest and kind and loyal subjects of the crown.
As for other authors from around that time, I usually try to reread one of Jane Austen’s novels before I begin a new mystery, to get the style of the period’s language in my head. Wilkie Collins, who was a contemporary of Dickens, is another inspiration. And I’ll read through some of the trial records of the Old Bailey that pertain to the Regency period—it’s all online now, which is a tremendous help.
6. Given the fact that your Regency mysteries mostly revolve around the Jewish community, what makes them different to other mysteries set in this era? Were there any notable differences between Jewish life and the rest of the community? What can we learn about Jewish life at this time?
One big difference is the type of crimes that are committed. While mysteries usually involve a murder or two, the truth is that murders committed by Jews are relatively rare. That’s not to say it’s never happened, but it doesn’t happen often. What we do have are financial crimes—theft, fraud and things like that. Therefore, many of my mysteries involve what I call “white cravat” crimes, as opposed to murder.
Another notable difference is that the Jews didn’t have full citizenship rights, so there was always a certain amount of insecurity about their position. They had been kicked out of England in the 13th century, and there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be kicked out again. I try to bring in this sense of insecurity in the novels, this feeling that a crime doesn’t have an impact just on the people involved; it has an impact on the entire community.
The final difference, I think, is that there’s a lot of humour in my mysteries. Jewish history is often very dark, but we’ve survived as a people both because of our faith in God and our ability to laugh at ourselves.
I try not to be moralistic, but I do like to include Jewish holidays and customs in the books. I also like to bring in Jewish concepts, such as the concept of “teshuvah.” Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” but it’s much deeper than that. Not only does the person regret doing something wrong, he or she resolves to never do the wrong thing again. Therefore, in this context a happy ending to a mystery story wouldn’t be that the criminal is hanged or otherwise severely punished; it would be that the person resolves to become a better person—someone who wouldn’t commit the crime again.
But getting back to humour, I think that’s one reason why the Earl of Gravel Lane and General Well’ngone have become so popular with fans of the series. They started out as minor characters, but their rather ironical view of the world means they get some of the best lines. Readers wanted more of them and so in The Moon Taker I gave them their own mystery to solve.
7. In your novel Terra Incognita, set in Catalonia, why did the family chose to continue to hide their Jewish roots in a modern world?
To research this book I went to Catalonia, where there are still communities of crypto-Jews; these are people whose Jewish ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages, but they practiced Judaism secretly and transmitted this secret identity to subsequent generations. I was supposed to meet with a few crypto-Jews, but in the end they cancelled the meeting because they were afraid. (I was also going to write a magazine article about Catalonia’s Jewish history and include their story.)
When I was back in Jerusalem I did meet with a young man who had grown up as a crypto-Jew in Portugal. What he told me, and I included his answer in the novel, can be summed up in two words: the Holocaust. The long answer he gave me was that the fires of the Inquisition never totally burned out—they just moved to the crematorium at Auschwitz and then to the Iranian threats to bomb Israel off the face of the earth. So this was a community that was still very much afraid of being openly Jewish.
8. How did you come up with the title?
Terra incognita literally means an unknown land. Medieval cartographers would use the term to describe a region that hadn’t yet been explored or documented. I use the term metaphorically in the novel, because for the characters it’s their Jewish past that is the unknown land.
9. With Historical Fiction, one of the most difficult things to get right is the voice. How important do you think this is to a novel?
There are all kinds of readers, and I know some prefer that their historical fiction sounds like a modern novel. But I’m the opposite. If the language is too modern it takes me right out of the story. So in my own historical fiction I do try to use language that conveys the flavour of the Regency period.
10. How long did it take you to write each book?
It really depends. Terra Incognita was serialized in a Jewish magazine, before it was published in book form. So I had an entire year to write that book. My mysteries take about 6 weeks to write and another few weeks to edit and polish. This is because I have a day job as a journalist, and I’m not one of those people who can write 1,000 words of my novel over and above my daily magazine writing. So what I try to do is clear 4-6 weeks on my schedule that are totally dedicated to writing the novel. But to write that quickly means I’ve first visualized the story in my mind, which can take anywhere from 6 months to a year of “daydreaming.”
11. In one of your blogs on Vienna, “The Shabbat Room, After Kristallnacht,” you mention the painter Isidor Kaufmann. Can you tell us how important he was to portraying Jewish life?
I think he was very important. There weren’t many painters who were interested in painting everyday Jewish life. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was another Jewish artist who painted Jewish genre paintings during the 19th century. Since photography was not yet common, the visual information that Kaufmann has given us about how 19-century Jews dressed, what their homes and synagogues looked like, etc., is very useful. By the way, I use paintings and prints from the Regency a lot when I’m writing descriptions of places, clothing, etc. —and I love the historical fashion images you share on your Facebook page.
12. What are you working on now?
I’m getting ready to begin writing the next full-length novel in the Jewish Regency Mystery Series. The working title is The Vanisher Variations.
13. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
I’m looking for what I call a “crisis opportunity”—that moment when a person’s world falls apart and has to be put back together again.
14. What part of the research process do you enjoy the most?
I’m a research “geek,” so I don’t think I’ve come across a research book or online link about the Regency that I didn’t like. Even if 99 percent of the information isn’t exactly on topic, there’s always that one percent that leads to an “aha” moment when I might get an idea for a plot or a character.
15. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
Keep going. I think most authors reach a point in the writing where they think that what they’ve written isn’t any good. So why not give up? It’s important to ignore that piece of advice and carry on. A scene can always be rewritten. The dialogue can always be sharpened. What’s important is to first get the story down. Worry about it being brilliant later.
16. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I live in a very small apartment here in Jerusalem, so half of my “salon” is my living and dining room and the other half is my office, where my computer lives. But my office does look out on my garden, and that’s very important to me to be able to see nature and sky. I tend to first visualize a scene before I write it, so it’s nice to look at something nice when I’m staring into space.
17. Do you write longhand?
I’m laughing at this one. I can barely read my handwriting these days. The most I write in longhand are notes for the next day’s writing, and sometimes it takes me a while to decipher that!
18. Do you listen to music when you write?
Always! Because I’m a journalist, I’m used to meeting deadlines. But still, there are so many “procrastination opportunities” these days, what with checking the emails and social media.
While I was writing The Doppelganger’s Dance I found a short piece of music that I used to keep me going with the writing—the violinist David Garrett’s version of Clementi’s Sonatina in G major (Clementi lived in England during the Regency period). I listened to it over and over again, and I’m glad the walls of my apartment are thick because otherwise I probably would have driven my neighbours crazy. I still use it when I need to go into “Pavlov’s Dog” mode and stay glued to my chair and focused on the writing.
19. What kind of child were you?
I was very quiet and very shy. I was also a champion daydreamer.
20. Were you an avid reader?
Oh, yes. I have older sisters, so we had a great library at home—many of the classics, as well as popular fiction such as Agatha Christie mysteries and Daphne du Maurier novels.
21. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to read, of course. Music is also a big part of my life. I have a digital piano and a folk harp and I really wish I had more time to play them. But the high point of my week is the Jewish Sabbath; that’s when the computer and phone are turned off and I have a day to just enjoy being with family and friends and get my spiritual batteries recharged.
22. Do you have a philosophy on life?
That’s a big question, and I don’t know if I can adequately answer it in a few words. But I do believe that each and every one of us is here for a purpose—that we’re all part of God’s plan for the world and each of us has a unique role to play in making the world a better place. So in addition to working on myself to try to be a better person, I try to retain a sense of wonder and respect for the people I encounter. Every person contains worlds within worlds, if we take the trouble to look beneath the surface.
And a few quick questions:
23. Who are your favourite authors?
I read mainly mysteries these days and my favourites are Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Rex Stout.
24. What are some of your favourite books?
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Persuasion by Jane Austen and just about anything by Charles Dickens. And, of course, all the great mysteries written during what’s called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
25. Favourite type of music to relax to?
I go through phases. Sometimes I prefer classical, sometimes I like electronic music (i.e., Vangelis). I also enjoy the Jewish music performed by the Israeli clarinetist Chilik Frank. Right now I’m taking a trip down memory lane and revisiting the Moody Blues. YouTube is awesome.
26. Favourite film?
I grew up in Kansas, so I suppose I should say it’s The Wizard of Oz. I’ve certainly been asked a lot about tornados and ruby slippers (and Toto, too) over the years. I also love the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. When I go back to Kansas to visit my mom, we watch them all; she’s 93 and I think she’s probably the oldest Fred & Ginger fan still around. But my favourite film is The Third Man. It’s got a brilliant screenplay, brilliant direction, brilliant acting, and brilliant music—and the issues the film raises about personal choice and responsibility really resonate with me.
27. Favourite painting?
I’m a big fan of Mark Rothko. I can’t name one painting, because each of his paintings is like a meditation on a different emotion and they all build upon one another. It would be like trying to choose your favourite note in a Beethoven symphony. So I’ve sent along a photo of one that I have hanging in my apartment (that’s to say a poster, the real thing is at Washington’s Phillip’s Gallery), which is called Green and Maroon.
28. Favourite holiday destination?
Fortunately, I live in my favourite place in the world—Jerusalem. But I love to travel and explore new places, so I suppose my favourite holiday destination is someplace I haven’t been to yet.
29. Favourite drink
Where can we buy the books?
Most of my books are on all the major online booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Apple.
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/libi+astaire/
Thank you for being a part of A Literary World, Libi. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint in the broken glass”