an interview with Leslie Cannold
There are books we buy and then hide afterwards. They become our secrets. Sometimes they’re so difficult to keep, we get rid of the evidence. We won’t admit to having read them even though we might be glad we did. Books that might have been instrumental in helping us better understand ourselves, to negotiate certain experiences or to help us make difficult decisions—and yet we’d be ashamed to have someone notice them on our bookshelves. You’ve written books such as these. How does it feel to be the writer of material readers prefer to keep hidden?
Yes, that was true of my first book, The Abortion Myth. I hadn’t realised that was what was going on until a young woman came to interview me for a student film. She said my book had changed her life and I was her hero. We did the whole interview and afterwards I asked her if she would like me to sign her copy and she looked shocked. ‘I didn’t buy it,’ she said. ‘I got it from the library. I couldn’t have it on my shelves.’
I think my objective as a writer – and of course this incident made me think about this – is to change people’s lives: to enrich them in some way, make them think about things that are important to them or decide what these things are, feel empowered. Clearly, The Abortion Myth has achieved this as it continues, so many years later, to go in and out of libraries. I wish I didn’t need to earn money as I’m far less interested in this, but sadly I do. So perhaps it’s true to say that knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t write another book like The Abortion Myth, despite being glad I was ignorant enough to have written it then.
Perhaps that’s what we’re trying to gauge when we pick up a book and read the blurb. When we weigh the various endorsements most books come with from other authors. Or when we simply look to the cover for clues to the change it’s hoping to provoke in us. The Abortion Myth isn’t somewhere we want to dwell and I suppose that’s why whatever changes it brings into our lives, when we’re done with it, we want to walk away without carrying the book along with us. There’s the opposite end of the spectrum where we very much want to bring the book along. I recently had a customer come into my bookstore holding your novel to her chest, saying she wanted to buy another copy for her friend. So it seems you’ve written a novel now that will create a change that readers will want to share. I was hoping you could talk about the process of writing The Book of Rachael. I was also wondering whether you’d agree that the books most potent in changing a readers life are the one’s that have changed the writer’s life.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but there’s something appealing about it. Certainly the experience of writing The Book of Rachael was totally other than those of penning my previous non-fiction works. The former were expressions of who I was and what I already understood and was now communicating to an audience. With Rachael I was for a long time wandering in the proverbial desert, working towards the skills to bring her from my head on to the page, and all the time struggling to maintain faith in myself, faith in the project. Keeping that faith became the core emotional challenge that some novelists say is offered by every project. I couldn’t depend on praise or accolades or even the occasional pat on the back from others because most people weren’t even aware I was writing the thing. To complete Rachael I had to believe in her and myself. I even bought a little flat stone with the word faith engraved on it – very fairy granola I know. But whenever whispered doubts and internal recriminations would begin- at certain periods during the process several times a day – I’d pick up the stone and squeeze it. Sometimes I’d even mutter the word ‘faith’ under my breath. I’ve always been a big believer in ‘fake it until you make it’, but this was the first time I tried to put those principles – of act as you believe right and the right feelings will follow – into action. And it really did work, though like most dramatic shifts of the heart, it has proved unstable, and occasionally even transient. So, I’m hanging on to that rock.
The rock of faith sounds appropriately biblical. Rachael is the sister of Jesus and wife of Judas Iscariot. Calling your novel The Book of Rachael (reminiscent of The Book of Job, The Book of Ruth, etc.) suggests you were not only writing an historical tale of loyalty and betrayal, feminism and religion, but were intent on contributing to the Bible itself. Did you feel there was a certain amount of hubris in doing that?
I must say that this view of the book’s title never occurred to me! As can be the way with such things, the title was arrived at after much discussion with my editor and the publishing house more generally. My working title for the book was Jesus’s Two Sisters, and Two Sisters remains the title of file on my computer file where the manuscript is stored. Through the course of the sales and editing process Joshua’s Sister, Rachael and Judging Judah were thrown around. The decision to settle on The Book of Rachael was about ensuring the title alluded to the biblical nature of the story, and that readers understood the book’s focus to be on the story’s women. My editor felt, and I agreed, that proffering a title in which men’s names were central ran counter to the feminist impulse behind the book.
I’ve always thought of the Bible as a loose collection of myths and history penned by many different authors. You might even think of it as one of the first literary anthologies—the theme of the first issue being God. Jesus is clearly a very different protagonist for the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So I think your contribution to this story is brave, fascinating, and in fact, fitting.
The Word is all the more precious for a population for the most part illiterate. For those that knew their letters, there was perhaps little opportunity to access much in the way of reading material so I was wondering if Rachael’s illiteracy within that social framework is different to a woman being kept illiterate within the modern world? For a society in a perpetual state of warfare, keeping those that bring new life into the world, raising the community’s children in as much safety as could be afforded, was perhaps the primary, most important social function. Slavery and subjugation was normal within the Roman empire so the question of female freedom might also have a different context. I’m wondering how you negotiated some of these factors in The Book of Rachael.
I was struck the other day by a story on the radio about a little girl in Afghanistan who was climbing on to the roof of the school building in which her brother was getting an education to listen to the lessons and later, help him with his homework. As you know, I have written a similar scene in The Book of Rachael.
My guess is that this little girl suffers other oppressions too, ones shared by brother. These would be related to the feudal ways of allocating social and economic power, and perhaps the many failed and brutal attempts by foreign powers to impose its will on Afghanistan. That this is the case didn’t, I suspect, stop her from noticing or finding unjust the deprivations imposed solely because of her sex. Indeed, misogyny can often be most brutal among the most socially marginal men in colonized lands, with some men using their control over ‘their’ women as proof of a masculinity they feel undermined by their social, political or economic ‘humiliation’.
One theory is that so many women, especially in the Greco-Roman empire, followed Joshua of Nazareth was because he offered them something they lacked and desired. Namely – and much like slaves – some control over their social, political or economic lives. If this is true, it suggests the view I took in the novel that the search for such control is central to human nature, is correct.