Martina Daly interviewed Rebecca Miller at The Arms Hotel on Friday.
Rebecca: I’ve been pretty much working on Jacob’s Folly the whole time (laughs).
Martina: I read the book two weeks and I love so many things about it. It’s only just been released here, so could you tell us a little bit about Jacobs Folly. Who is Jacob? Give us a flavour of the book.
Rebecca: Well, in a nutshell, Jacob is a Jewish peddler in eighteenth century Paris, who finds himself reincarnated as a fly in contemporary Long Island, (laughter) and he sort of finds that he can influence the thoughts and actions of two humans – two people from our present day – Leslie Senzatimore and Masha Edelman.
Masha Edelman is an observant Jewish girl living in Long Island and Leslie Senzatimore is a voluntary fireman and boat repair man. There are three narratives. Jacob in the past, and two other protagonists along with Jacob in the present are sort of interwoven in a kind of three-braided challah. A challah bread is a Jewish loaf which has three braids. So I had thought of the structure as a three stranded braid as I weaved it together.
Martina: The structure is very even, everybody seems to get an even amount of time. Is that something you put a lot of thought into?
Rebecca: That was actually quite a tricky thing to do and so I created a big board with tiny pieces of card with each thing that happened in the book. It was colour coded, so I was actually able to visually see it. It’s not symmetrical exactly but there was a visual balance. I would tweak it in terms of which word to end on and I found that going back to a visual pattern made it easier because it became so complicated.
Martina: That’s a very visual way of doing it. Do you think the fact that you are also an artist helped?
Rebecca: I was trained as a visual artist initially and I think that stuck with me. Definitely.
Martina: Jacob is male in both incarnations and Leslie is also male. So the book overall has quite a masculine energy and tone. Was it liberating for you to write in this way?
Rebecca: It was hugely liberating because as Jacob is from a different century, I lost my own contemporary mindset. I got to have a new sex. I got to lose all my guilt and really pretty much my morality (laughter) so it was a great five years. (laughter) But seriously, it was more natural for me to explore him than one might have thought. It was a bit like tuning a radio. Once I found the frequency of his voice, and sometimes I had to write for a while so that I had it. I sort of tuned in, then I found I could write very fluently.
Martina: What was the genesis of the novel? The first idea?
Rebecca: I saw Leslie Senzatimore having a pee on his front lawn at four o’clock in the morning and that was the first thing. (laughter)
Martina: You’re a very visual and very descriptive writer. I felt as if I was on some sort of sensory overload for the first hundred pages, just trying to get into the style of it. I kept having to put down the book so I could visualise, and smell the smells, and see what the characters were seeing. It actually made me slow down my reading and I felt I wanted to read it quickly and then maybe read it again. Did you deliberately use such descriptive writing in order to make the reader slow down and savour the experience?
Rebecca: I don’t know if it was to make the reader slow down, but definitely I allowed myself to use more lush, figurative language than I had in the past. Perhaps because he is from the eighteenth century I figured I had good licence to do that. And also, the way he uses language is very joyful and sensuous, and Jacob’s a very sensual creature. I wanted the language to reflect that.
Martina: You write dialogue very well. It’s the way people really speak. There’s no sense of what do they mean here?
Rebecca: Thank you. (laughter)
Martina: It’s just how much attention to detail there was, particularly in the historical parts of the book. What kind of research did you have to do?
Rebecca: I did a massive amount of research. Over the five years that I took to write the novel I ended up reading for six months and would then write and then read and then write. I found my research kind of fell into different categories. On the one hand I was researching eighteenth century Paris among the villainy, then eighteenth century Paris among the tiny population of Jews, and that was the most challenging.
The most helpful thing I found were the police reports, because there was actually an inspector in charge of Jewish affairs, who is in the book. He’s kept very exhaustive notes on every Jew living in Paris, which came to only about three hundred. He documented whether they had wives and children and how long the passports were for etc. So I took a lot of the names and the addresses from there. The other big challenge was the orthodox Jewish population. I did field research and stayed with a family.
Martina: What was that like?
Rebecca: I was roaming in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with my son when seven families of Hasidic Jews arrived. The women with their wigs and long sleeves and skirts. It was a very hot day and I was thinking, how does that make sense? And that’s when I realised that Masha was in fact from one of these communities. I ended up not making them Hasidic, but observant Jews. When I did more research and found that there was reincarnation in mystical Judaism, I decided that I could have a Jewish fly.
Martina: Some of the themes are in common with your previous works, such as identity, assimilation and particularly escape. But this time faith and religion are very much to the forefront. Was religion in your mind at the start or did it develop as the characters unfolded?
Rebecca: It really developed as my theme was getting bigger. It started as a very small story and really kind of expanded hugely once I realised it was going to be crossing the centuries. It suddenly became much bigger. Really a lot of it is Jacob railing against God.
Martina: Religion has been touched upon in your previous works, particularly Chris in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, who wanted to be a priest and had an enormous tattoo of Jesus tattooed on his chest. Are you spiritual yourself?
Rebecca: I had myself baptised when I was eleven. I did it under my own steam because no-one was going to do that for me. Then I went to a Catholic church for years with a family down the road. I think I’m a homeless religious person. I don’t belong to any particular faith but I’m always asking the essential questions.
Martina: The theme of escape keeps coming up in your novels. Why do you keep coming back to escape?
Rebecca: Everybody dreams a parallel life, a ghost life, which isn’t theirs. And I think that the question of whether it’s possible to be free and happy at the same time is a question I ask a lot in the book. In a way, we define ourselves and we become ourselves through other people. We are reflected by other people. We’re created by other people if you think about it, because without other people we probably would have no identity.
Yet when we have relationships they kind of hem us in, and I think we’re always dreaming of another life. I particularly admire people who almost create themselves. I think that Masha is somebody who really has to create herself from the ground up, and it takes a huge amount of courage to do that.
Martina: There’s a lot of humour in this book.
Rebecca: That’s what I tried to do. To deal with very serious subjects in a light way, like a souffle.
Martina: I laughed so much at the sex.
Rebecca: You mean the fly sex? (laughter)
Martina: Yes, there’s fly sex in the book. I almost don’t want to ask you this but I kind of do as well. Is that correct… the way it was done? (laughter)
Rebecca: It is actually all correct. (laughter)
Martina: Because it was quite hard to visualise.
Rebecca: I did a lot of research on this particular subject and there’s an amazing variety. (laughter)
Martina: Jacob discovers he’s a fly, when all along he thought he was something else.
Rebecca: When Jacob comes down he realises that he must have died and he’s convinced he’s an angel against all the odds, because Jacob was not a particularly good person in life. But he thinks he’s a very beautiful angel and then he realises that nobody can see him, so he figures he’s an invisible angel and he also realises to his irritation that he’s a very small invisible angel because he can rest on leaves. He spends a lot of time under the shirt collar of Leslie Senzatimore who is going around his tasks of good deeds.
Matrtina: I’d like to come back to Masha. Is Masha the kind of woman you admire?
Rebecca: She absolutely is. When I came to this Jewish community I think I did judge them in a way, and I left not judging them, but understanding a lot of the beauty in the community. One thing did strike me though. One of the times I visited, there were three grown up sisters who sang together when no-one else was in the house, and they sang so incredibly beautifully. It gave me the idea that Masha could sing.
When it came time to sit down for the feast and the men sang their hymns, the women mouthed the words and looked down, because they don’t sing in front of men they’re not related to. In the Bible it says that the voice of a woman is akin to nakedness, so that really struck me and had a huge influence on the book and on Masha and what she is.
Martina: You’re a film maker as well, but I can’t imagine who would play these characters.
Rebecca: Yeah I haven’t figured that out either.
Martina: Have you thought about bringing it to life in another form?
Rebecca: I don’t think so at this point. I don’t see the need right now. I’m happy with it as a book.
Martina: Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Rebecca: I’m working on a movie that I’m hoping to make this fall, so maybe I’ll get to do that. I’m also working on a novel, but very much out of the corner of my eye, which is how this book started, and I think that’s a really good way of working. I think it’s good to let thing puff up by themselves a little bit. But while that’s happening I did write a screenplay based on a friend’s book which is set in New York City.
Martina: What do you like to read for pleasure?
Rebecca: I’m actually reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I feel like reading a big book just now. I read lots of different things. I don’t read much fiction when I’m researching.
Martina: Do you own a kindle or do you like to hold a book in your hand?
Rebecca: I like to hold a book in my hand. I find that I can’t judge writing on the screen. I do write on a computer but I have to print it out. I always think it’s better on a computer screen than it actually is. I also tend to scan more when I’m reading on a screen.
Martina then invited questions from the audience.
Q: I’m an aspiring film maker and one of the obstacles is how expensive a formal education is at University and I was wondering if you thought a formal education is worth it?
Rebecca: I really believe in an education. I didn’t go to film school but I got a great education at college. I think the great thing about going to university is that you have time to get the resources. Education is really just resources and if you go straight into the workforce you don’t have that time to think and develop your mind. I think developing your mind and having the resources and knowledge is very important. So I would say, get educated. Whether you have to go to film school, I’m not sure about that, but there’s plenty of short courses for that.
Q. It’s a few years since I’ve read The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. It began in third person, first person, third person, didn’t it? And that felt like a risky thing to do as a writer. I haven’t come across that anywhere else.
Rebecca: That was a risk, but I try to interweave the stories. What I wanted to do is get to know Pippa really well in a way that you thought you knew her. Then suddenly you almost fall through a rabbit hole and she comes up with this voice which is not what you think. Then you go back to the third person knowing her better and that creates a better intimacy. So it’s playing around with the idea that you think you know someone and you judge them, and they turn out to be not the person you thought they were at all.