Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Guest Post by Mitchell James Kaplan

Today I am pleased to welcome Mitchell James Kaplan, author of the historical fiction best seller By Fire By Water. In this guest post Kaplan explains the inspiration behind his novel. Enjoy!

How I Got the Idea for By Fire, By Water

For me, ideas grow from research. But characters evolve from experience.

During my senior year in college, I discovered Marcel Proust. Or
rather, I discovered that the tone of Scott Moncrieff's translation,
which I had begun to read and had found rather stuffy, was not
faithful to the original. As soon as I heard the first words of Du
coté de chez Swann in French, I fell in love with Proust's narrative

I decided to read the rest of A la recherche du temps perdu in
Proust's country, and then to devour the rest of French literature
just as I had done with the English canon. At the end of my senior
year, I won a prize called “The Paine Memorial Prize for the Best
Long-Form Senior Essay submitted to the Yale English Department.” My essay dealt with the influence of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams on contemporary poets. The prize carried a $300 cash award. With that, I purchased a plane ticket to Paris.

There, I found an au pair position with a prominent
industrial-political family. They had a maid, a cook, and a chauffeur;
my job was to have breakfast with their children every morning. The
children spoke English fluently, but their parents felt it was
important for them to practice daily with a college-educated native
speaker. In exchange, I was provided with a fifth-floor room and
leftovers from the sumptuous lunches the parents provided for guests
they entertained in their home. These guests included important
political and financial figures from all over the world.

It was a cozy enough arrangement, and certainly an eye-opener. I
learned a great deal about the attitudes of the French bourgeoisie
through daily exposure, even while reading about them in the pages of Proust, Balzac, and Molière.

In the afternoon, I sometimes walked to the Bibliothèque Nationale,
the French National Library. The reading room was available only to
writers and editors, but I had the right to look at exhibits in the
areas open to the general public. One remains vivid in my memory: the display of Gustave Flaubert manuscripts. I remember marveling at the beauty of his penmanship. It said a great deal about his approach to writing that he would take so much time to make every stroke of his pen as perfectly balanced as humanly possible.

Like Emma Bovary, I was lonely. If I wanted to have any kind of social
life, I needed pocket money. At the American Center on the Boulevard
Raspail, Madame Boyd looked over my resume and said, “You are lucky, Monsieur Kaplan. A movie producer, Dominique, needs English lessons. He called just this morning. A charming man. I'm certain the two of you will hit it off.”

Dominique became a great friend, and helped me transition from working as an au pair to translating screenplays for a living, usually for producers who were seeking financing from English-speaking investors.

Eventually I moved to an apartment of my own on the Rue Marcadet,
behind Montmartre. There, I spent my days working side by side with
French screenwriters and directors, including Elvire Murail (whose
novel, Escalier C, was a huge hit), Jean-Pierre Ronssin (whose film La
Discrète would win five Césars, the French equivalent of Oscars),
Pascal Kané (whose fame as a theorist of film and Libération
journalist had preceded his discovery of Juliette Binoche in Liberty
Belle), and Maroun Baghdadi (the daring and brilliant Lebanese
Maronite cineaste who died in mysterious circumstances a few years
later). Evenings, we often shared a coq au vin and a glass of
Beaujolais Nouveau at the local bistro. I was entirely unaware how
lucky I was.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It was while I was still an au pair
that Dominique introduced me to a friend of his, Michel Archimbaud,
who at that time was an editor at a major publishing company, Editions Robert Laffont. We had dinner together, and Michel grilled me on the subject of Jewish identity. He had recently learned that he was the child of Holocaust victims, who had hidden him in the monastery where he was raised. This was my first exposure to a phenomenon I was destined to learn much more about while writing By Fire, By Water many years later: when Europeans learn they have “Jewish blood,” they often become intensely curious. What does this knowledge imply about their “identity?” As an American Jew, this phenomenon surprised and intrigued me. Jewish-Christian relations in the United States were so much simpler than in Europe, where the weight of history is felt powerfully even by those who know little about that history – and all the more so by people, like Michel, who knew a great deal.

I tried to answer Michel's questions as well as I could. Perhaps as a
reward, he sent a letter by courier to my room the next day. On Robert Laffont stationery, it was addressed to the librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and informed him that I was working on a book that Robert Laffont intended to publish. Armed with this letter, I was able to obtain a library card and suddenly had access to one of the largest collections of books in the world.

I started spending my afternoons in the beautiful reading room of the
Bibliotheque Nationale. It was there that I discovered a battered
leather-bound brochure that listed all the sailors abord Columbus's
1492 voyage of discovery – their names, places of origin, and jobs
aboard the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Perhaps still under the
influence of my dinner discussion with Michel Archimbaud, I found one
sailor's story particularly intriguing. Actually, I shouldn't say
“sailor.” Luis de Torres was listed as Columbus's “translator.” A
recently baptised Jew, he was the only person aboard Columbus's three ships who possessed no maritime skills whatsoever.

I surmised that de Torres – who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic as well as Spanish – must have grown up a Jew in the Islamic emirate of Granada, before Granada fell to the Christian armies of Isabella and Ferdinand. Beyond that, it became clear to me that to view Columbus's voyage outside of its context – the Spanish Inquisition, the reconquest of Granada, and the expulsion of the Jews – was to miss a great deal of the meaning of that voyage. I knew right away that this would be a great setting for a novel.

I wanted to write that novel, but had no idea how to do so. I
certainly had no idea at that time that my novel would center on Luis
de Santangel, the man who financed Columbus's voyage, and on Luis de Torres's aunt, Judith Migdal. The seed planted in my imagination would remain dormant for many years, until I finally had the energy, experience and confidence I needed. But that's another story.


  1. What a fascinating story! You never know where your journey will lead you.

  2. What an amazing story you had to share. Like Bermudaonion said before me, that is sure a journey :)

  3. Wonderful guest post - By Fire, By Water is such an incredible novel. I cannot wait for his next book!

    I will post this out on Twitter as well.