Rivka’s War: At the Intersection of Fact, Truth and Fiction

THERE REALLY WAS a Battalion of Death led by Maria Bochkareva, as characterized in Rivka’s War. I mined Bochkareva’s autobiography and journalistic sources of the period to provide a faithful account of her and the exploits of her battalion. The same is true of other historical figures: wherever possible, I used their words and sought to remain true to historical fact—except, of course, where fact interfered with the truth of the narrative. Here’s a rundown of the characters in Rivka’s War.

Characters Taken from LifeFictional Characters
Lieutenant Filippov
Yashka and her family
General Brusilov
the Tsar and his family
Mrs. Pankhurst
General Polovtzev
Vera Mikhailovna
the Aaronsohn family of Palestine
Allenby and his son
General von Sanders
the Lefkovits family
the Aaronsohn family of Russia
Dudie and his family
Gennady (Filippov Too)
Tsipi and her family
Avram ben Yohanan


Why I wrote EVEN YOU

EVEN YOU WAS BEGUN by my partner, Mary Lou Kallman, who died in 2003, leaving a hundred or so first-draft pages of Jessie’s narrative. She thought the semi-autobiographical story couldn’t stand by itself, without some sort of framing tale. It’s one of life’s hideous ironies that my grief at her death provided the material for just such a frame.

Jessie’s story was engaging and important, and I didn’t want to see it die with Mary Lou. We two had worked closely together (we co-wrote Playing for Keeps under the pseudonym Jack Kendall), so it was natural for me to honor her by taking on the novel’s completion. Over the years, she’d told me a great deal about the joys and terrors of her childhood in Tulsa. But when I traveled there and retraced some of her steps—I found inconsistencies. What was true in her narrative? What was fiction? And what the vagaries of memory? This confusion bore fruit as I worked my way through EVEN YOU.

Here’s what was hardest about writing EVEN YOU: I never stopped struggling to stay true to Mary Lou’s vision, but I knew at the same time that I, alone, was responsible for creating this work.

I think she’d like it.


From The Columbia Paper: a Q&A on November to July

Q. HOW LONG did it take you to write November to July?

A. TEN YEARS.I began thinking about it when I wrote Rivka’s War. My novels generally go through a half-dozen drafts, but November to July went through many more than that. I kept re-casting the story, kept deciding it wasn’t working, kept putting it away to write something else, telling myself I should just forget it. But I couldn’t let it go – or else it just wouldn’t let me go – until finally, I found the way to tell it.

Q. WHAT WAS the most challenging part of writing November to July?

A. DEALING WITH THE POLITICS. What went on at the peace conference in a matter of six months was immense. I narrowed it down to a few representative issues that still have reference to our world today. There was still much to explore. I wanted to shed light on how men of good conscience and with the best intentions could go so wrong – but at the same time, I couldn’t let the political details swamp Eleanor’s story, so I stuck to matters involving Eleanor in one way or another. 

Q. WHAT MADE you happiest about writing November to July?

WRITING – just writing. Although it’s always hard and often frustrating, writing is the most fulfilling thing I do. It makes me happy by keeping me alive to every detail of life. Regarding November to July in particular, I think the happiest part came from focusing on how people whose worlds are in shreds around them can manage to build a new future for themselves.


How I researched This Storied Land

MY NOVELS ORDINARILY have their beginnings with a question or a problem that I want the answer to. In the case of This Storied Land, my question was: what really happened in Palestine during the British Mandate, 1920-48? I’d read biographies of people such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, but I wondered about the conflict in ordinary people’s lives—a farmer, say, or a laundress, a partisan, a nurse, a student. 

I started in my usual way, by reading novels of the period or about the period. Those written in the 1950s—Exodus, The Haj—provided an introduction to the issues, but proved way too one-sided, favoring the Jewish settlers, ignoring or belittling Arab culture. (I use the term Arab or Arabic rather than Palestinian for clarity, since Jews, too, were considered Palestinians at the time). I moved to novels by Israeli authors, including S.Y. Agnon, Amos Oz and Meir Shalev. Shalev’s The Blue Mountain had been useful to me in writing a previous novel. If you’re looking for a good read, by the way, I recommend Shalev’s Two She-Bears, which helped me this time around. 

I already had a deep background in the Zionism of the period through the research I’d done for my blog Streets of Israel, which provides information about the people whose names adorn the street signs of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Now I began reading and taking notes from histories of all sorts written by Israeli, British and (current) Palestinian historians. As usual, I became thoroughly confused for a while by classical, revisionist and post-revisionist historians. Amid a welter of conflicting claims, I wondered what was the god’s honest truth. The same has happened in my research for previous novels, set during World War I (Rivka’s War) and at the Paris Peace Conference (November to July)—so I was only vaguely unsettled by the disparities I encountered. I knew that sooner or later, the wheat would separate from the chaff, and I would have facts that I could rely on by the weight of the evidence. Online sources of actual documents helped a great deal. (I recall that it was an online source when I was researching Rivka’s War that told me the color and texture of the soil in Ukraine, which I needed when Rivka dug a garden.)

I continued to search out novels written during the period, as well as memoirs of that time, since those were the most likely to provide the little details that bring a story to life—what people were eating, or what cigarettes they were smoking, how they bought their food, what games the children played, what families did on outings at the beach. These were general impressions. Once I began to write, I used the internet to look up specific pieces of information that I needed. When, for example, I depicted the Palestine Broadcasting System’s first moments on air, I’d used the internet to search out radios being produced in Europe circa 1936: what they looked like, how much they cost, which ones were available in Palestine. 

When I’d told an Israeli friend of mine that I was working on a novel set in Palestine, she hesitated—mused—and said, “You can’t.” I laughed, wondering what she meant. But I soon discovered how extraordinary these times were. Things of consequence happened virtually every day, and Arabs, Jews and Britons found themselves locked in an ever-shifting, toxic triangle. Meanwhile, world events weighed ever more heavily on them all—along with history, of course, a long trail of history.  I wasn’t up for a thousand-page tome with long expository passages, so I needed a way to bring in a lot of information in an economical format. 

For a time I was stumped. Then, while reading Apeirogon by Colum McCann, I realized I could adopt a technique he used to encompass the current Israeli-Palestinian morass. I began looking for allusive quotations that I could incorporate into the narrative—from newspapers, the Old Testament, the Qu’ran, Jewish and Arabic poetry, eyewitness accounts, and bits of knowledge from the science and the arts of the period. Employing this narrative structure enabled me to tell a multi-faceted story in just 285 pages. It also provided thematic material in This Storied Land. Schrödinger’s Cat was one of the scientific concepts I included; another was Einstein’s entangled particles. I was able to use Schrödinger’s concept of being simultaneously dead and not dead as a metaphor in the novel, and to play with Einstein’s concept of entanglement in various ways involving people and things.

My major research was finished by the time I started writing. By then I had a good sense of the daily lives and concerns of Jews, Arabs and Britons, and what they would face in the years to come. Over my two years of facing the page each day, I continued to look for specific bits of information, as described above, and continued to read work by Jewish and Arabic poets and essayists; to seek out photographs and watch historic videos that would deepen my sense of the times; and to listen to music, especially the oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument of great emotional depth.

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