THE BOOK OF LIFE - A Ceiling Made of Eggshells
2:46AM May 17, 2020
Gail Carson Levine
Gail Carson Levine, welcome to The Book of Life.
Oh, thank you. I'm so glad to be talking to you.
Gail, we'd like to get to know you a little bit. On your website at GailCarsonLevine.com you have a whole section about your house, and that is not a standard practice on author websites. So why did you choose to share your home with us?
Oh, it's just such a cool house. It was built in 1790. And it's got four fireplaces. The one in the living room used to be the kitchen so it's got the beehive oven. And over that fireplace is a carved Lions Head that used to be on a Barnum and Bailey Circus wagon, because the circus was not far from here and Brewster, where I live, was where the horses were kept for the circus. So that's one thing about the house, but it's got all these old beams, because it's an 18th century, the ceilings are low and the windows are small. And oddly enough, that makes it really cozy. I love being here and I think the house has intrinsic interest.
Cool. That's awesome. Tell us about A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, what it's about.
It's about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the events that lead up to that. It's told through the voice of a young girl in a prominent Jewish family. Her grandfather is a courtier, and a financier for some of the nobility, but most important for the king and queen of Spain at the time, Ferdinand and Isabella, and so she because she goes with her grandfather, she gets to witness a lot of the events. So for example, she goes to Malaga when it falls, sees the treatment of prisoners of war and sees how inhumane it is. Before then, she's a little bit toying with the idea of converting to Christianity, her brother makes a case for that. And it's that experience that solidly convinces her that she wants to stay a Jew, regardless of what may come as a consequence of that. So it's about her experience of this time and her family and how the times influence them and influence her and her becoming. She's seven at the beginning of the book, and she's 16 at the end.
So it covers a lot of ground.
Can you explain the title A Ceiling Made of Eggshells?
I can't find the reference where I originally found it. But it's from a folktale about King Solomon, who had a lot of wives and wanted to marry a fresh one, or a new one anyway. And when he was wooing her, she said she wouldn't marry him unless he provided her with the ceiling made of eggshells. And this is in a story that's told to her by her beloved grandmother, Bela. And the comparison is made between a ceiling made of egg shells, which is very improbable, and Jews in Christian Spain, which has its own improbability. That's where the title came from.
Sort of seems like a twist on the image of a Fiddler on the Roof. You know, something that's improbable and awkward and could be hurt at any moment?
Yes, yes. So it's fragile.
This situation for the Jews was.
Talk about your family connection to this book, and in your earlier book, Dave at Night.
For this book, it has to do with my father being a Sephardic Jew. My father was born in Salonika in 1912. When he was born, Salonika was still part of the Ottoman Empire. There wasn't that much Empire left, but it was. And in the first Balkan War, a few months after he was born, Salonika was lost to the Greeks. My father's family was in Salonika for 350 years, maybe, well, my father's first language was Spanish. He didn't keep it. When he came to this country, both his parents had died and he was putting in an orphanage. And that's the subject of my first historical novel, Dave at Night. My father grew up in an orphanage, and it must have been very bad because he would never talk about it. So after he died, and I was missing him, I decided to make up his childhood and that was that book. And these two books I think, are probably the most important books to me because of that family connection, and it's not uncommon among Sephardic Jews to continue to feel that connection to Spain. Jews were thrown out of a lot of places, but that's a connection that continues that I'm not sure why but I've always felt it.
So Dave at Night and Ceiling Made of Eggshells have a direct connection to your family. Is there any hidden family connection in your fantasy books like Ella Enchanted?
Oh, gee, um, yeah, in not a great way. Hattie is my Aunt Harriet. Hattie is one of the evil stepsisters and I did not like my Aunt Harriet. So I turned her into Hattie. My Aunt Harriet was dead by then so you know I couldn't hurt her feelings. And I don't think she'd recognize herself anyway. But she was indirect and Hattie is indirect. And so there it is. I did it.
Okay. Well, good for you. You got, you got her back.
Paloma, called Loma in the story, has a very unusual role for a girl at that time in that place. Is it realistic? Did you have to tweak things to give her so much agency? Would it have been possible for a female at the time to live the way that Loma lived?
The only way that it seemed to me that it was possible was through that attachment to the grandfather. So after his wife dies, he is very bereft, and Loma has some qualities that he finds very interesting. They're all mathematicians and that's something from my family. My mother and my father could add long columns of figures without thinking about them in their head. So I brought that in. So they're all money people because they have to be. That's the way that they help the Jewish community. And it's also the way they stay real to the Christians, so that she has this facility with numbers and she's very bright, is of a lot of interest to her grandfather. And because she's female, he is able to make the connection with his beloved wife. So he attaches her to him. I was looking for a way to give a child - a child of either gender wouldn't have a lot of agency at that time, in fact, an adult didn't. They had agency only because they were so privileged. So they were able to escape a lot of the things that anybody else would have had to do, both within the Jewish community and in the outside Christian world. So I was looking for a way to give her some agency and the grandfather was the way. But I took pains, at least I hope, to make her not be a 21st century girl. And as an example of that, when she has an idea, she would never think I had an idea. She always thinks an idea was sent to me by God or by Bela, or when she's apart from her grandfather by him, it's not hers. So that's an example. I did my best to not make her modern.
I think you really succeeded with that. I've read a lot of historical fiction, where it does feel like we're imposing our modern sensibilities on characters of the past because that's how we'd like them to be, but this really didn't feel that way. It did seem like you had gotten into the head and the mindset of a person of the past.
Thank you. I'm so glad to hear that.
Tell us about the character named Hamdun.
The Muslim population of Spain was much bigger than the Jewish population. Muslims could be anything and I decided he could be in their family. Originally, I made him into a slave, because slavery was common, domestic slavery. And I thought better of that in terms of having a lot of explaining to do, if you were a slave, so I turned him into a servant. But I felt that Loma needed help. She needed somebody on her side and he could be there and he could see her with a clarity that nobody else can. The whole family regards through through the prism of their needs, including her grandfather, who loves her very much but is willing to use her. The whole family uses her and Hamdun is the only one who doesn't. Since he is very poor, and can't afford to have his own family, he regards that family as his even though he's Muslim, and they are Jewish, so there's a lot that separates them.
At this time, when antisemitism is on the rise, I think it's so helpful to have a widely read author like yourself addressing this topic, so that it's more likely to be encountered by non-Jewish readers. Thinking about this book in terms of the famous windows and mirrors metaphor about the effects of children's literature, what reflection do you hope Jewish readers will see in the mirror? And what insight do you hope non-Jewish readers will see through the window?
Well, I'd like everybody to know this part of Jewish history because it was cataclysmic, and before the Holocaust it could be argued that it was, post biblical times, the most awful catastrophe for the Jews. Half the Jews of Spain, from 1391 to 1492, either converted, or died, died leaving or died being murdered, one way or another. So I guess I'd like children to know that the Holocaust was not a one-off event, that there was a history that goes way, way back. And I think many, many children will know about the star that Jews had to wear in Germany. And that that had antecedents in the Middle Ages with the badge that Jews had to wear, I think will be revelatory for lots of people. I would like Jewish children to see her heroism, although she's a medieval child. And also, you know, there are things like Jews ransoming other Jews out of slavery, which they did and did and did and did, I think is kind of a wonderful thing for Jewish children to see, because of the strength of the community.
Looking at the notes in the back of the book, it's obvious that you did tons of research. Can you tell us something interesting that you learned that didn't make it into the book?
I thought I was going to write more about what it was like to be on a ship. So I did some research on ships and I found that... the whole gambling thing was a big surprise to me, what a crime gambling was considered at the time, throughout the Middle Ages. Loma's brother shapes up to be a compulsive gambler. He's not a good character. He doesn't take responsibility for the things that he does and he sloughs it off on his family and they become very threatened by him. But the danger would have been less if gambling hadn't been such a crime. And it was a big crime. And yet everybody did it. So what I discovered about ship life, like 50 or 100 years later was that playing cards were invented, but they were very expensive. So they would be rented out on ships. So people would play with rented playing cards. And then the person who was renting out the cards wouldn't charge until there was a winner. And the winner would pay out of his winnings. And then the people who were rooting for the winner would also expect a tip out of the winnings. So that was just a little piece of strangeness that I thought was a lot of fun to learn about.
So the people rooting for the winner would get a tip from the winner because they thought the rooting had an effect?
I don't know, they'd get resentful about having to tip, but they'd tip! One of the things that makes one feel like one stepped through the looking glass.
Wow, weird. Yeah, thank you. That's interesting. I was surprised to find a recipe at the end of the book since it's not exactly a foodie story. Tell us about Sephardic eggs, what they are, how you make them and your relationship to them.
Well I'd heard about them forever. Since my father was an orphan and grew up in an orphanage, and the orphanage was Ashkenazi, he was divorced from his roots. And my mother was an Ashkenazi Jew. And so the cooking at home was not Sephardic cooking. So I'd always heard about Sephardic eggs, and I'd never tasted them. So I became very curious about them and I cooked them. I put together recipes from the internet, from my cousin. I put in more ingredients than he suggested. Af ter they've hard boiled, you just kind of crack the eggshells, and they're still on, and they continue to boil in this kind of red water because of the red onion skins. And they cook for like 12 hours. They're beautiful. They're like mosaics when you peel them, but they don't have a whole lot of taste. So they're like hard boiled eggs at the end. I have not tasted my cousin's Sephardic eggs. So I may not have succeeded in making them as good as they can be. The cookbook that all this comes from is from the records of the Spanish Inquisition. They kept copious records, and people would be accused. This would be former Jews who had converted generally out of fear for their lives or in order to stay in Spain. They would be watched by their neighbors for their dietary practices, and they would be accused and the Inquisition, with its means, which included torture, would take copious notes, and they would give recipes. So the recipes were in the records of the Inquisition. And the authors of those books, both of them scholars, put them together in ways that made them recipes again, so they weren't just ingredients and practices, but they became recipes. And my cousin's mother, used that book all the time.
Is there a connection with the title? Because of the eggshells in the title and the eggs that the... the recipe for eggs at the back of the book?
There must be, but I didn't think of it until you said that.
Okay. You've written books about writing and your blog encourages and supports other writers. Obviously, there is a lot to say about this topic, but just very briefly, what writing advice can you share with us right now?
I guess there are a couple of things. One is be patient. Writing is slow. Publishing is also slow. You know, you don't figure it out and know what you're doing right away. And the other is not to be self critical about it. What I mean by self critical, I mean, globally self critical. "This stinks. This is no good. I can't write," that kind of chatter is completely unhelpful. You know, writers have to be conscious of things like pacing and character and dialogue. And that does require criticism, but it's specific and it's useful.
Okay, good. Thank you. I think I read this somewhere, that you said that you imagined the character of Loma as an ances tor of yours.
So she's more than just a character to you. She feels like family, but she's invented family, right? So talk about that.
Well, as I read about the expulsion and all the ways that people died getting out... If they weren't close to the coast, they could be waylaid, there were pirates, people would be sold into slavery in a way that there would be no Jewish community to ransom them ...the harder it became to believe that anybody survived. So what would the qualities be of somebody who might be able to do that? Loma, I think, is that person, because there are two sides to her. And one is really devoted to family and children. And to passing along... she wouldn't have thought of this... but her genes and passing along her knowledge. The other part of her is just exceedingly capable. So she figures things out. It seems to me that's the kind of ancestor I would have had to have. In everybody's family history there are people who went through terrible things and managed to survive. And what are the qualities that are needed for that? And going forward? We don't know what we're going to face. What are the qualities that we're going to need to get through? So it's, it's that. She's very important to me.
At the end of the story, we get closure, but it also it's sort of a new beginning for her. She's arrived in a new place, her family is now safe. Is there any chance that you'll revisit this and tell us what else happens to Loma and her family?
Well, the Jews were in Naples for 40 odd years, but then they were forced out of there too. And I would not like to do another departure story. So I don't know, I would like to do something else. Maybe it would be becoming part of Salonika.
Okay, cool. It's Tikkun Olam Time. This is your opportunity to do a little bit of activism. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help heal the world?
Well, I would love for adults to teach to a child, something that they love to do, and that they're pretty good at, so that that gets passed along. And the child has the experience of learning that. And I would love for the child to pass either the same skill or different skill to a younger child, and have both the experience of learning and then the experience of teaching. I think that would be just great. My Mother, she loved culture, and she would take me to museums, that love of visual art became very, very important to me and still is is associated with really keen pleasure. So that's the thing. It's not curing the world of all its troubles, but it's a thing that we can do. I do it when I teach writing.
Wonderful. Yeah, every little bit helps. You don't have to cure cancer. Just do what you can. Is there anything you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Hmm. Well, yeah, sure. 200 years earlier, in Spain, and before that was the golden age of Hebrew poetry and Jewish poetry and also Arabic poetry. I used the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse for the poems that are in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, and I am also a poet. So I studied poetry. I have a poetry collection for adults. So I read about the poems and the translations in their book or in prose. So I adapted some of them and turn them back into poetry, and looked at some of the techniques that were used at the time in those poems, and used some of them. There's an acrostic, there are rhyme schemes that I used. So I'd like to point that out because I love poetry, and I loved putting them in.
Thank you for pointing that out. What are you wor king on next?
Way different. I'm telling the Trojan War as a fantasy book, and I'm making it not a tragedy.
So I'm having fun with it.
That's great. Where can listeners find you online?
Well, my website is GailCarsonLevine.com. They'll see my guestbook so they can write to me, and also my blog, where there's a lot of writing discussion and advice, and I love my blog so I would love to be visited. They can follow me on Instagram @GailCarsonLevine.
Gail Carson Levine, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Oh, thank you. This was great. You had great questions.
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