One of the questions I was asked during the FB Live session a few weeks ago was, “How much of the book is autobiographical?”
Because of the time constraints, I answered broadly: “Ahhh… this is a complicated question to ask a fiction writer, because, you know… what does autobiographical mean? None of the… well, most of the things that happen to the characters in the book did not happen to me, and, you know, it’s a fictional story and the characters are fictional and not based on anyone in particular. But, that said, I think all fiction is autobiographical to a degree, in that you’re drawing on your own experiences, on questions that you have thought about or struggled with on some level, and also you’re drawing on characters–people that you’ve met and their stories, and lots of different stories that you’ve encountered.”
I want to use this post to give a more comprehensive answer.
So: what real-life people, experiences, and stories did I draw upon?
Descendants of Conversos
There were quite a few people I know or know of who are or may be descendants of conversos, whose stories and experiences were woven into the story. The most obvious influence is that of Genie Milgrom, author of My 15 Grandmothers, who I interviewed and wrote an article about for Pnima Magazine a number of years ago (and I posted about that in more detail recently). The background of the character Ester Maimón is based primarily on hers, with a few touches from other stories I’d heard from other places.
My Trip to Barcelona
As Josep of Letters to Josep recently accused: “C’mon! This is a biography of your trip to Barcelona, just in an uglier city!”
Yeah, so, readers of Letters to Josep probably recognized a few autobiographical elements that made their way into Alma’s experiences in her first few days in Madrid. For those of you unfamiliar with Letters to Josep, I traveled to Barcelona in October of 2006 to participate in an international youth conference as a reporter.
Misadventures ensued and friendships were forged–most notably, of course, the friendship with Josep of the title. You can read the whole crazy story here.
So, there were a few things that happened on that trip that I borrowed and worked into By Light of Hidden Candles.
One thing is Alma’s conversation with Manuel about how to kasher a kitchen, which is strongly based on a similar conversation I had with Josep on my last day in Barcelona (recounted in the link above).
The second thing is Alma’s getting stuck there without kosher food–and Manuel’s efforts to help. In Hidden Candles, Alma ends up stuck because her suitcase, which contained all the gear she needed to purchase and prepare kosher food at her apartment, didn’t arrive with her in Madrid. My suitcase arrived safely in Barcelona with me, but the American members of my press team were not as lucky; their airline lost their bags and they went a day or two without changes of clothes! So I snatched that and used it as a plot device.
The reason I got stuck without food was a… misunderstanding (if we’re being generous) on the part of the conference organizers, but… let’s not get into that!
Point is, Josep did his utmost to help me, and though he did not succeed in doing for me what Manuel did for Alma, it was not for lack of trying!
I (thankfully) did not encounter any neo-Nazis or swastikas on my trip to Barcelona, but I did encounter this:
Also, the… *cough* inquisition posed by the Israeli guard at the entrance to the Chabad in Madrid was based on my experience getting into the synagogue in Barcelona. Alas, I was not smart like Alma and didn’t think to dragoon a Shabbos goy into carrying my passport invite Josep to tag along.
My first real “interfaith experience” was at a National Women’s Martial Arts Federation seminar in West Virginia. I wrote about the experience in detail in my recent op-ed for The Times of Israel, “Who’s Afraid of Interfaith Dialogue?“: “There is a sort of redemptive relief in finding others who share your sense of purpose, your sense of awe, your feeling of connection to a Divine Being, and your struggle to be closer to Him,” I wrote for TOI. “What I discovered in that room was that those people don’t need to share your belief system to create that relief. In fact, the discovery that there are people so very different from me, and who believe and practice their faith so differently, but share those same struggles and experiences, ignited an even greater sense of wholeness than discussing the same things with other Orthodox Jews.”
I’ve been hooked ever since!
As is probably apparent from the general style of Letters to Josep, the playful banter between Alma and Manuel on their different religions and cultures was certainly inspired by the way I like to banter about those things with my friends from different religions and cultures. Josep, for example, identified in Hidden Candles more than a few elements of conversation that sounded familiar to him. I should also mention Jonathan; he’s a devout Catholic Puerto Rican living in Brooklyn with whom I had many very, very silly conversations about religion before he decided to leave Facebook and we fell out of touch. (Sadly this also means I can’t pillage my Facebook wall to find examples, because now they all just look like me having a bizarre conversation with myself. But there is one funny example in the introduction to the guest letter he wrote on Letters to Josep a couple years ago.)
Manuel’s joke that maybe Alma should be baptized just to make sure they’re both covered? Josep cracked that one many years ago, and I took it a lot better than Alma did! (Specifically, I found it funny and sweet, rather than a reason to go ballistic on him in the middle of Plaza Mayor.) (Good thing, too, because I’ve never actually been to Plaza Mayor.)
Intermarriage & Religious Tolerance
My first real encounter with the delicate issue of intermarriage was at age 16. A very close friend of mine, who was becoming disenchanted with religion, began dating a guy who was not Jewish according to Jewish law. It was a major crisis in my life (as all things are when you’re a teenage girl…)–I was torn between my loyalty to my friend and my desire for her to be happy, and my loyalty to Judaism and everything that Judaism meant to me. The friendship suffered a great deal due to my inability to accept who she was becoming.
I think this friendship taught me the hard way how to be tolerant toward people who differ from me ideologically; I learned that even if I didn’t love what my friend believed, I still loved her, and I came to regret letting the religious issues come between us and ruin our friendship. I didn’t want to let that happen ever again.
My older sister–with whom I’m quite close–also left the religious fold at 16 or so, and wavered for a while between relationships with Jews and non-Jews before settling down with a very sweet lapsed Seventh Day Adventist. She is just one of the many family members of our generation who “married out”. Alma’s cousin David is not based on anyone in particular, but the dilemmas–and the tense family discussions on the topic–definitely came from close to home.
So… I’ve had the opportunity to confront this issue from a variety of angles. I explore my thoughts about this topic, with a passage from By Light of Hidden Candles, in this op-ed I wrote for The Forward: What Is the Jewish Obsession with Intermarriage Really About?
Grief & Loss
Grief is a prominent force in the book that drives some of the characters’ decisions and behavior. Three of the characters start out the story having already lost a parent–Manuel, Míriam, and León. I’ve said in interviews before that I have found myself exploring grief and loss a lot in my writing, and on the surface it seems odd because at least as of four years ago when I wrote the book, I hadn’t even lost any of my grandparents, much less a close friend or family member. (I have since lost two grandparents–one of whom died just as the book was going to print.)
Eventually I came to understand that not all loss involves death. When I was 9 years old, my family immigrated to Israel, and that was a major loss–the loss of my friends, the only home I remembered, the culture and language I was familiar with… and writing was one way I discovered to cope with it. So it’s not that surprising that I am drawn to this theme. When it was time for me to choose a national service (instead of mandatory army service), I decided to volunteer with an organization that helps terror victims and bereaved families–OneFamily–and I had the opportunity to observe up close how different families cope with loss. Some of those observations made their way into the book.
The Immigrant Experience
Speaking of my experience as an immigrant, that certainly helped me write about Manuel’s experience as a Spanish immigrant to the USA. What he says about realizing how much mental strain was involved in merely being in an English-speaking environment–strain that is suddenly lifted when he is surrounded by Spanish–that’s a direct reflection of my experiences visiting the USA in the first few years after moving to Israel.