Stranger in a Strange Land: Ruchama Feuerman
What the Bible Has to Teach Us About Writing Fiction
Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Ruchama King Feuerman, whose novel In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books) is one of the most enjoyable I've read in the last decade.
Here are a few tips I've picked up about writing fiction from studying the bestseller of all times.
Start with a bang, end with a bang, and if you must bore the reader, do it in the middle.
Everyone knows, the greatest salespeople tell great stories. The author of the Bible had a difficult job. He had to sell a stiff-necked stubborn people on a bunch of difficult laws. Did He start out saying: Keep kosher? Observe the Sabbath? Don't have sex with whoever you want? Give a tenth of your money to the poor? He did not. He began with powerful stories—the big bang of creation, then page-turning tales of murder, kidnapping, infertility, fratricide, Pharaohs, kings, seductresses and shepherds, and it kept getting juicier and more irresistible. In between the stories, the author tucked in those exacting laws. Then, whenever they threatened to overwhelm the reader, He went back to relating more edge-of-the seat stories. Clever.
If you deftly sandwich dull but necessary back story with dramatic scenes you can get away with a lot. Maybe everything.
Cast a spell.
You could tell bed time stories from the Bible or you could write philosophical exegesis as scholars have been doing for millennia. It could be read allegorically, for its moral messages, for its literary value, or to plumb its esoteric secrets. How does the Bible manage to cast its spell on such a divergent group of readers and convey meaning on so many levels at the same time? Only God knows. Still, in the absence of landing an interview with the Lord, I would venture the Bible's musicality plays a big part. Take the first chapter. "God said, 'Let there be light.' And light came to be. God saw that the light was good and He divided between the light and the darkness. God named the light 'Day,' and darkness He named 'Night.' It was evening and it was morning, one day." Even in English translation, the sentences are sing-song, musical and melodic. Everything is there, and it will never be forgotten.
Set your characters free.
Some writers tend to hover over their characters like a mother hen, trying to protect them from harm and from doing real harm. It's as if these writers can't quite let go. The author of the Bible has no such difficulty. Really bad things happen to nearly everybody. Jacob's daughter Dina is raped. Joseph gets thrown into a pit by his own brothers and sold into slavery. Rachel, after a stretch of infertility, dies in childbirth. People get swallowed up by the earth. Moreover, sometimes, the Bible's heroes and heroines are the ones actually doing the unsavory things. Rebecca tricks and lies to her husband Isaac. Reuben beds his stepmother. Aaron the high priest helps the Israelites build an idolatrous Golden Calf. King David conveniently sends off Bathsheba's husband to battle to die, so he can have her for his own. Perhaps the Bible's greatest accomplishment is that it courageously lays out its heroes' sins and flaws unflinchingly.
Most intriguingly, the Lord allows Himself to be portrayed in a harsh light, too. He often appears to be fuming and angry. He makes threats. He brings terrible floods, and rains fire and brimstone on cities. Why, He won't even let his faithful servant into the Promised Land owing to what it is seemingly a mere infraction—hitting a rock.
The more timid, constrained writer might think, But if I let my character do that, he'll be unlikable! The Bible seems unconcerned about likeability. Instead it lets the truth rip.
You don't know your characters or what's between them until you hear them speak out loud.
Genesis and Exodus (not to forget Numbers) contain some of the best jump-off-the-parchment dialogue I've read anywhere.
God calls out to Adam after he eats from the tree: "Where are you?" "I heard Your voice in the garden," replied the man, "and I was afraid, so I hid." God asked, "Who told you that you are naked?" You can sense an in-the-moment immediacy.
A few chapters later, when Sarah overhears that she's promised a child in her old age, she laughs to herself, saying, "Now that I am worn out, shall I have my heart's desire? My husband is old!" God said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Can I really have a child when I am so old?' " Later, when confronted with her impiety, Sarah is afraid and denies it. "I did not laugh," she says. Abraham says, "You did." Damn. The father of all people may be a saint, but he's nobody's fool, either. You want to follow this couple. Are they on the verge of fracture or wholeness? Read on.
Dialogue reveals what's what between the characters, then pulls you in deeper into the story. Just take a tip from the Bible and don't let your characters rant.
And don't forget the food.
Any novel worth its salt makes sure to include food. It doesn't come out of nowhere. Someone has to trap it or grow it, cut it down, cook it, serve it on a plate. Food is a loaded topic from the get-go. God forbids Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of one particular tree in the garden. Cain and Abel quarrel over food—whose food sacrifice is better. Lack of food makes Joseph's brothers leave Canaan and sets in motion their descent into Egypt and eventual enslavement. Every other chapter the patriarchs are breaking bread while marriage deals and covenants are forged. Food seems to be behind everything, both good and bad.
Recent research claims that the pleasure sectors of the brain light up not only when you eat food but simply when you think or read about it. No wonder the Lord God stuffed His book with food scenes. He surely knows His creatures. I tell you, whenever I read how Abraham, in his eagerness to give a feast to wayfarers, caught a "tender choice calf" and then "fetched some cottage cheese and milk and the calf that he prepared and placed it before his guests," I salivate. If writers shy away from writing about sex—as I do—they need to be double-sure to have lots of food scenes to compensate. Food matters. Even the ascetic Isaac tells his son Esau, "Go out in the field to trap me some game. Then make it into a tasty dish, the way I like it." If a book is too lofty and disembodied to mention food or care about it, it's probably not worth reading.
—Ruchama King Feuerman
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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