Leslie Cannold, author of the critically acclaimed The Abortion Myth (2000) and What, No Baby? (2005), which made the Australian Financial Review’s top 101 books list, talks to Readings Monthly editorial assistant Phoebe Bond about her third book and first work of fiction, The Book of Rachael.
The Book of Rachael is set in Israel 2000 years ago. In your Author’s Note you mention that you don’t view the book as historical fiction. Where do you draw the line between fiction and historical accuracy and what historical details were important for you to get right?
I began the fiction-writing journey in a different place on this question to where I ended it. When I started The Book of Rachael, my experience was as an academic researcher and journalist. It was outside of the scope of possibility to write anything I didn’t know or believe to be true based on available evidence. It was all I could do not to footnote! However, having written a first draft bristling with far too many, too precisely drawn facts and realising – okay, so perhaps someone told me – that it didn’t work as a novel, I was forced to reconsider my position.
Ultimately, a novel has to work as a story and by the third draft of the story I finally understood this, not just in my head but my heart. There had also been enough time between drafts that the masses of knowledge I’d packed into my first go had faded. The knowledge or impressions that stuck with me were ones I decided must be the ones most important to the story I was telling so I wrote the novel with these as the foundation stones and only returned to my tomes for further historical facts on an as-needs basis.
You have created a style of speech that seems to observe the conventions of the time but simultaneously feels fresh and modern. How did you go about finding the voices for your characters?
That is so nice of you to say – thanks! This was certainly among the most challenging aspects of making the novel work. I wrote and rewrote that first chapter many times, making very few changes on the nature or order of events I was recounting but working constantly with the voice. Throughout, I returned to the Gospels and the First Testament to absorb the cadence and phrases of these texts, but combined this with fierce pragmatism. If more than one reader of the manuscript said, ‘that’s lovely, but what does it mean?’ or simply wrote ‘huh?’ in the margins, I’d usually – not always, but usually – bite the bullet and change it. My editor was also pretty clear about the merits and limits of the vernacular enterprise on which I’d embarked, and when she decided something was too ye-olde or just plain confusing, I was smart enough to give way.
You say that the impetus for this novel came from watching a BBC documentary about the life of Jesus. Can you talk a bit about this initial inspiration and where it led you?
I love documentaries, and many years ago I saw a BBC one about Jesus of Nazareth – the man, not the religious figure. It was broadcast over weeks, the narrator microscopically examining every shred of evidence about how Jesus lived and died. At one point, the names and fates, even the burial places, of his four brothers was canvassed before the breezy assertion was made that Jesus may have had sisters, too, but no one knew their names. The program moved on. But I was stuck. What kind of world painstakingly records the names and stories of important people’s brothers, but not their sisters? What would it have been like for a girl to have come of age in such a world, especially if she was preternaturally bright, as well as determined? I decided right there that I would tell the stories of these forgotten women, feeling it was both honour and a challenge to take on the task of reclaiming them for history. Eventually, it came to feel like a responsibility, too, and it was this sense of duty to the sisters that kept me going during the lean years.
As a feminist, you’ve written a book set in an era when women were totally subjugated by men. Do you see The Book of Rachael as a feminist novel? What were the intentions and tensions for you in the writing of this book?
I see the project of reclaiming women lost to history as a feminist project and of course I’m sympathetic to women born in times where their horizons were so limited. But it’s a novel and so once the decision to write it was made, all such considerations were set aside so I could focus on the sole and difficult-to-achieve objective of every work of fiction: to be a bloody good yarn. Indeed the highest praise I have received for the book so far has been from a not-particularly-feminist bloke who told me he couldn’t put it down for this reason.
You build a strong sense of how much the spirited protagonist Rachael struggles to find her place in the world. How do you think Rachael would fare in today’s society? And was this your way of writing the journey of womankind in general.
Rachael would have loved being born today. I get a smile on my face just thinking about her. She’d be the prime minister or head of the UN or something. Perhaps she’d do this by not having kids, but she might manage even with a few. I wouldn’t put anything past her.
You evoke a tremendous sense of place in your novel, I often felt like I was right there with the characters walking throughthe landscapes of ancient Israel. ‘Gethsemane … where stone walls crumbled from the weight of years, and the branches of olive trees straggled towards God like a hag’s withered arms.’ How did you go about constructing this world?
Thanks again, this Q & A is really good for my self esteem! Look, I have been to Israel three times, though it was a number of years ago and way before I decided to write the book. Ideally, I would have travelled there again but this just wasn’t feasible. So I dragged out all the photos I took during those years and pasted them around my desk, surfed the net for more images and put them up, and then let my imagination build the rest of the picture based on the world described in the Bible.
You are an author, ethicist, researcher and a prolific media commentator. You were recently honoured as Australia’s Humanist of the Year; you are also the mother of two teenage sons and the lead singer in Melbourne-based cover band Speedy Fish. How do you fit it all in?
There are two answers to that question. One is having an incredibly supportive partner and loving children. All three men in my life make me feel that what I do is important and deserves accommodation and sacrifice on their part. They take me seriously and that helps me to take me seriously.
The other is by running hard and then taking a breather to restock imaginatively and otherwise. I won’t be writing books for some months, even years now, while I focus on earning money and taking the pressure off my family. It’s the turn of others in my crew now to follow their dreams. So if anyone has any speeches they want me to give or to ghost-write for them, or books or reports they need researched or written or just want to be mentored through writing their own fiction/non-fiction, or taught how to write opinion pieces or effectively tweet, give me a hoy! (www.cannold.com).