Much is said nowadays about the fate of print. Do we absorb ideas best when read on paper or digitally? Will we lose our literary traditions as our technologies change? What is the significance of an archive, anyway? It seems like a new issue, but in her richly researched historical novel The Weight of Ink, author Rachel Kadish reminds us that sometimes to understand the present, we would do well to look at the past.
The novel is set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, weaving together the stories of two women intimately involved with both the worlds of ideas and of text. Ester Velasquez is a Jewish emigrant from Amsterdam who serves as a scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; Helen Watt is an ailing historian looking to end her career with a significant find. Helen studies ancient archives, straining to decipher (and to physically preserve, despite a tremor in her hand that often threatens the delicate papers) the complex politics and philosophies Ester once wrote about. Ester (scrounging for the physical ink, paper, time in order to work), struggles to make a life for herself as a learned woman who wants to be an intellectual under incredibly fraught circumstances. There’s a lot more going on here too—a historical setting that springs to life, a nuanced look at Jewish thought on the brink of significant change, and a thoughtful exploration of the ways women have found to live, love, and make work of their own.
And of course, Kadish found herself turning to JSTOR for help. We asked her all about it:
Amy Shearn: The Weight of Ink weaves together a couple different stories, jumping in time between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries. Did you know from the start that you wanted to write the book this way? Did you write one storyline and then the other? What was that process like?
Rachel Kadish: I’ve always been drawn to stories, music, and art in which history makes an unexpected appearance in modern life. To me it makes perfect sense that the past floats into our lives at startling moments. I grew up around people who were always making references to histories I hadn’t lived—my father’s parents had scraped their way through the Great Depression, my mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors. So it felt both natural and appealing to write a story about history showing up uninvited, presenting a mystery my characters feel compelled to solve.
As for the way I wrote the book…while I can’t say I’d recommend this as an approach to writing a novel with an intricate plot, the truth is that nothing was pre-planned, and I wrote the novel in the order in which it appears in the final book. The first draft was a complete act of improvisation—chapter by chapter, revelation by revelation, I switched between twenty-first and seventeenth centuries. Most of the time, I had only the vaguest idea of where the plot might be heading. I would write a contemporary chapter in which the historians discover something surprising in a document. Then I’d think: let’s pop over to the seventeenth century and see what was going in in Ester’s life, and hopefully the explanation for that document will present itself there. Then I’d work in the seventeenth century for a while until I thought: ok, but now what? Will Helen and Aaron misunderstand the document Ester is writing? And I’d switch back to the present to see.
I kept thinking that there must be a more sensible and efficient way to plan and write a complex novel, but this was the only way I could do it. And in truth I had fun drafting the book that way—it certainly kept me on the edge of my seat.
Why did you decide to write about a female, Jewish scribe in 1660s London? What was significant about the Jewish community of London at that time?
The more I learned about that particular Jewish community, the more it fascinated me. These were Portuguese-Jewish refugees from the Inquisition, and in the mid-seventeenth century one of the most essential tasks they faced was to figure out how safe they were in a city that had repeatedly expelled its Jews. When I learned how resistant they were to (Portuguese/Dutch rabbi) Menasseh ben Israel’s wish to make their presence in London official, it really struck me that the Jews of London had seen an enormous amount of violence already, and preferred to remain under the proverbial radar. Their determination and their fears reminded me in some ways of the Holocaust refugees I knew as a child. I found it easy and appealing to imagine their world.
As for writing about a woman, I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s statement that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she would have died without writing a word. While I know that’s the likeliest outcome, I couldn’t help wondering what it might have taken for a woman of capacious intelligence in that era not to die without writing a word.
How did you research this book? I was amazed by the level of detail—the reader really sees, smells, feels Esther’s daily life in London. The scenes where Ester walks the streets of London, or where she goes to the theater comes to mind—they are just so vivid! How did you recreate this distant time and place? And how did you work up the nerve to take on this huge research/writing challenge?
Thanks for the kind words! Honestly, it took forever…but I also loved every part of the research. It was easy to get lost in reading about daily life in seventeenth-century London, and I was fortunate to find wonderful resources—everything from Liza Picard’s detail-packed Restoration London to Miriam Bodian’s work on the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam. Seventeenth century texts like Pepys’s diary or Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy were essential as I figured out what sort of language I could and couldn’t use in those portions of the novel. And I learned an enormous amount from reading about the artwork and fashion of the era, and from books about philosophy and philosophers—particularly works by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Steven Nadler, and Jonathan Israel. I had huge maps of 1600s London on my wall, and of course I visited London—though I had to be careful to distinguish today’s city from the London that existed before the 1666 fire.
…and of course, resources I found through JSTOR were enormously helpful! It’s astonishing what you can find with a little searching! Accounts of the plague in London; issue after issue of the transactions of the Royal Society from the 1660s, with everything from recipes for mulled cider to essays about the latest developments in maritime navigation. I can’t imagine bringing the seventeenth century world to life in any detail without those resources.
One important resource was a 1660s edition of Philosophical Transactions, the publication of the Royal Society. Ester is looking through a copy of Philosophical Transactions in chapter 18, in the scene in which Béscos catches her reading and begins his threatening line of debate.
Another was a letter by Menasseh ben Israel. I love seeing his handwriting! And after reading his discussion of chronology in the bible, I inserted that theme into one of the letters my fictitious rabbi receives from another rabbi—this is the letter in the margin of which Ester scrawls Spinoza’s words: Deus sive Natura.
As for working up the nerve, I think in situations like this, ignorance can work wonders. I walked into the material one step at a time, with little idea what I was taking on. And I didn’t do all the research in advance, but rather alongside the writing. Doing all the research in advance of writing this novel would have made as little sense to me as swimming a mile by first doing all the breathing, and after that all the swimming. For me, the processes are intertwined. I would work on a scene until I stumbled into a detail I didn’t know: what utensils might be on a seventeenth century table, what foods would be on the platters, what the table manners would be. Then I’d research for a while, then I’d come back and finish the scene. And inevitably there would be some unexpected detail I’d discovered in my research that would provide the seed for a new idea for the novel. (For example, in researching what my characters might be wearing on an outing, I learned that London’s high-society women sometimes went out for strolls wearing black face masks. After I learned that, I started thinking about a scene in which Ester might run into Catherine da Costa Mendes in the park, and Catherine would be wearing a mask…)
The ideas and works of Spinoza feature heavily in this story. What is your background in terms of philosophy? Why Spinoza?
This is the part where I admit that my background in philosophy is nonexistent. In fact, it’s worse than that—I found philosophy absolutely intimidating. There’s something about the philosophical mindset that feels like the inverse of the novelist’s approach: philosophers look past the distracting personal details of an individual life to focus on larger truths; whereas the novelist’s path to truth must go directly through the messy details of an individual life.
Still, I felt drawn to write a character who had a philosophy-shaped brain. I think I like writing about people who aren’t like me because it’s a way of finding new ways to understand the world. And I’ve always felt a bit of envy for those conversant in philosophy—it seems possible that they’ve found a way to reap the moral clarity of religion without falling subject to the partisan and parochial messes that so often surround religion. (I know, I’m idealizing philosophy here. But you asked, so…)
So I started educating myself so I could write Ester’s character. Honestly I don’t know what stubbornness possessed me, because I really struggled with the material. It took a lot of late nights of reading after my kids were in bed. There was this one book—Radical Enlightenment by Jonathan Israel—that I started over and over for months and couldn’t make sense of, until one day suddenly it made sense to me. I’d finally learned enough that I was able to read it.
As for Spinoza…I’d already started researching the Jewish refugee community of Amsterdam when I learned that he’d been a member of that community, and that they’d excommunicated him in extremely harsh terms. Of course I needed to learn more about that, and one thing led to another…and then suddenly as I was working on chapter 18 of the novel, there he was as a young man, years before his heresy and subsequent exile, standing for a moment in the doorway as he escorted the blind rabbi to Ester’s family’s house. I loved being able to give him that simple human moment in the book.
I thought it was so interesting how early in the book there is this issue raised of cultural appropriation—who is allowed to tell whose story. Helen Watt is the historian uncovering the scribe’s work, and she has made a career of studying Jewish history—but again and again people question whether or not she has the right to, or question her motives, since she’s not Jewish. This issue of appropriation is so much in the air right now. What made you include it in this story? What made you decide that Helen should not be Jewish in the first place?
From the outset, Helen was always a non-Jewish Englishwoman. Her character was clear to me from the beginning as well. She was principled, severe, intimidating, deeply honest, deeply loyal, and passionate in ways invisible to most.
Only later, as I wrote her backstory, did I realize that her powerful feelings for a Holocaust survivor would have carried her into a love affair with Jewish history—and stranded her there.
So yes…appropriation. An important issue, and it felt right to let Helen Watt and Aaron Levy battle it out a bit over who has a right to the newly discovered trove of papers. I see both their points, but in this particular case I’m rooting for Helen. (And really, if Aaron weren’t so furious about other things in that scene, he probably would be too.)
Aaron Levy, the young student who helps Helen with her research, has his own stalled project involving Shakespeare. A line he particularly puzzles over serves as the epigraph for the book. Why did you weave Shakespeare into this story? What’s the significance?
I’ve always loved English literature, and of course when you’re an Anglophile English major, Shakespeare is everywhere you turn. So when I started writing something set in seventeenth-century England, it felt natural to weave in references to his work.
I also liked the idea that Aaron, in his arrogance, takes aim at the grandest prize he can imagine: he’s going to be the one to discover new evidence about Shakespeare’s connection to Jews of his era. But by the time we meet Aaron, he’s started to realize that he’s failing at that task…and failure is such an unfamiliar experience for him that it unseats him.
…and I won’t say more, because that would spoil some discoveries I hope readers will make within the pages of the novel.
What did you learn, researching and/or writing this book, that surprised you?
So many things! I learned that in seventeenth-century London, ale was easier to find than potable water; some makeup was made of ground-up pig jowls; people strapped pattens to their fine shoes so they wouldn’t have to tread directly on the mud. I learned that Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam refused to be buried in the same cemeteries as Ashkenazic Jews. I learned that during the 1666 plague, the city government of London ordered all of London’s cats and dogs killed, because it was believed these animals spread the plague…so tens of thousands of cats and dogs were killed, thereby eliminating the natural predators of the flea-carrying rats, and making the plague much worse. I learned about paper conservation, and how to write with a quill pen. I learned that I’m even worse at translating Portuguese than I expected.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned that people’s humanity—their fears and aspirations and even their humor—is visible in the simple facts of the historical record, if you look closely enough.
Ester, our seventeenth-century scribe, struggles with the impossibility of being both a woman and a writer/thinker. This is obviously a bit easier in our age, but how is this theme still relevant?
Sadly, Ester’s struggle to persist—to refuse defeat even when everything around her tells her to sit down and mind her manners—continues today for many women and girls. And I’m appalled when I think about the message our country is now sending to young girls about whether or not their voices matter.
It took you ten years to write this book. What was that like? Did you ever worry that you would never finish, that it would come to nothing? What kept you going along the way? (And the mundane but for some reason endlessly fascinating part of this is: you have children and you teach. How did you find time to write such a massive tome?)
John Gardner wrote that a novel should be “a vivid and continuous dream.” I used to think of that line, and I’d just despair. How was I supposed to have a vivid and continuous dream when there was always a sick child, a snow day, an absent babysitter? My work time and my concentration were so fractured that I thought I’d never be able to write the kind of book I wanted to write.
But one day it struck me: that vivid and continuous dream is for the reader, not for me. And it’s my job, patching together what time I can, to build that dream.
Once a Week
So that helped me feel more resolute and less despairing. But the fact remained that I needed focus and time and it was hard to get those things. Often I’d just stay up ridiculously late to work. I learned to write whenever I had a moment, and to grab whatever opportunities I could find for brief writing retreats at a friend’s house.
You are in a writers’ group with some other notable female writers—Joanna Rakoff, Tova Mirvis, etc—how has that helped your writing process? What’s the best part of being in a writers’ group?
It’s wonderful to have the company of such a terrific, generous-minded group of writers, and I love the fact that we’re all committed to helping one another navigate the writing life. The publishing world can be a bewildering place, and the writer’s life is mainly a solo act, so it’s just enormously helpful to have other people to compare notes with.
Read The Weight of Ink to enter this engrossing fictional world.
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