Q&A

What is it about Cyrus the Great for you? I mean, nobody knows much about him. And it’s all so long ago!

Lately, the women in Cyrus’ life have captivated me as the man himself. And that’s saying a lot. The three closest to him were Nebuchadnezzar’s widow (his aunt); a gorgeous Achaemenid from the most noble Persian tribe (his wife); and his gutsy daughter, the first woman to have a mastectomy and survive. As for Cyrus himself, I admit I’ve got a bit of a crush on him. He is called “messiah” in the Bible and actually gets the last word in the Hebrew scriptures because he liberated the Jews from exile in Babylon, allowing them to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. Given the Bible’s history of development, I’m not so sure we would have a Bible at all without Cyrus. Cyrus is sometimes called the author of the first declaration of human rights (the Cyrus Cylinder still exists — wow), and he was an inspiration to Thomas Jefferson for fashioning a great state with religious freedom and respect for cultural diversity. Cyrus developed an empire larger than the world had ever seen before, and he did it in part by balancing a central power with local leadership and governance. He was also a gardener. I could go on, but as for age (yes, at 2500 years and counting he’s too old for me), the most fundamental parts of the story transcend time — love, loss, identity, the vagaries of wealth and power, finding home,… What’s more, the stories take place in some of the most bewildering parts of world for us today — Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan — and during a period when many of the world’s great religions were beginning to take shape. It’s a fascinating context. Finally, though, this is not high-brow literature but I hope a gripping narrative. I confess that most days it feels like some epic soap opera.

You’ve been writing nonfiction until now. Why the switch?

Truth? I couldn’t help it. Though believe me, I tried. This project began as nonfiction. I thought I’d write about the transition from Babylonian to Persian rule in the Middle East, the first Iran-Iraq war, if you will. Then I thought it would be a biography of Cyrus into which I could fold that historical drama as well as information about the development of the Bible. But finally there is so much that we don’t know for certain (and so much more that lends intriguing sets of possibilities) that I began to make things up. I’d wrestle it back into nonfiction only to begin again to elaborate, imagine dialogues, relationships, culinary menus.  One day as I was kvetching about the project’s refusal to conform, a friend of mine with a gift for the frank said, “Why do you keep clinging to nonfiction?! Accept it. It’s a novel.” What a relief that was to hear and to accept. I wish I could say it’s been a breeze and clacking keys ever since. It hasn’t. But despite the hours of painstaking research, agonizing over which choice to make where, and editing-editing-editing, I love the business of making stories. I have always loved to read, especially fiction. And I read everything — from The Lorax to Lolita, from The New Yorker to new media. I read literary fiction and potboilers, young adult dystopian fiction, Latin American magical realism, and deeply melancholic literature of the midwestern plains. And I read for all sorts of reasons — for escape and entertainment, of course; but also for models to emulate, insight into people totally different from myself, inspiration, and ideas for how I might navigate my own life. So the jump to writing fiction hasn’t been quite the leap I feared and resisted for so long.

Do you write every day?

I’m a really unpleasant person if I don’t. I have an awesome studio office — a little, very old out-building where we live in Charlottesville. The only downside, I watch a lot of wildlife. But I have an inner Boss Lady who’s pretty tough. She lays down the law and is quite no-nonsense. Between her and the dogs, who have learned when it’s time to go to the office (and get quite anxious if we mess with that), I usually show up on time.

Do you miss teaching?

It is a tremendous privilege to be in the position of helping others see things differently; of introducing new ways of thinking; and encouraging mastery of enough information to question, debate, and make sense for themselves. I also learned loads — at least as much as my students did. I loved teaching, and teaching about the Bible in an academic environment was especially exciting because so many people begin the process with really passionate thoughts on the topic. So, yes. I miss teaching. But I hope that my writing can be a kind of teaching, too, even the fiction. Not that I’m trying to drum facts into readers’ heads by cloaking them in some facile narrative. But I hope that what I write incites an experience that affects the way a reader thinks, at least for a time. And I still do some speaking-type teaching here and there. Nevertheless, I love spending my days writing.

What about nonfiction — the Bible, religion, spirituality?

Life keeps surprising me; but I expect those topics will always find their way into my writing. Actually, I’ve got a couple of nonfiction projects bubbling away on the back burner. One bears on all those things. The other is specifically about the Bible. But these days, fiction’s demands have been rather shrill, so I spend nearly all my time in the ancient world and the dramas of those people who have become to me, rather oddly, friends.

(Archive): Are you religious?

I guess it depends on what you mean by that. I was raised a garden-variety Lutheran (practically inevitable for a Swede born in Duluth, Minnesota), and I had a wonderful experience growing up within that tradition among pastor-rich family and friends. With all the time I’ve spent over the years learning and thinking about the Bible and religion, my faith has definitely changed… in some quite exhilarating ways. I still identify myself as Christian but have huge respect for different religions. Maybe because of my focus on the Hebrew Bible, I have a special fondness, awe, and even a bit of religion-envy for Jews. And I’m in good company, I know, in saying that there’s also a great deal about Buddhism that resonates with me as deeply, spiritually true.

Why did you choose to specialize in the Old Testament?

Lots of reasons, and I keep uncovering more. It’s earthy and complex, resisting a tidy theology or easy reductionism. God is portrayed in all sorts of ways, and the stories work on many levels. Besides, there’s a lot to it — so many different books that developed over a long period of time. I knew that I wanted to learn biblical Hebrew when my college professor showed how the word for human being, adam, in Genesis 2-3 is related to the earth, soil, or dust, adamah, out of which adam was shaped. I’ve always had a strong concern for the environment. With that introduction to theadam/adamah wordplay, I wanted to see if there are other ways that biblical texts could inform a healthy perspective about our place in the world. So I began to learn Hebrew. (And I’ve found that the Bible can work both for and against a strong environmental ethic.) Also, I guess I just love stories. I find that they’re capable of telling truths far richer and deeper at times than a strict reporting of facts, and they can get under the skin and into our consciousness more profoundly than conventional, straight-laced information.

Biology and religion, don’t those conflict?

Hmmm, yes and no. I’m not a fan of a method of reading scripture that forces one to choose between either dismissing the Bible as a bunch of silly and irrelevant tales or reading it as a scientific reporting of observable phenomena. I think that most if not all of the Bible was written without this scientifically verifiable kind of constraint. Science and religion can complement each other when it comes to things like caring for the environment or promoting whole-person health. Oh, and bio-ethics is an area of enormous importance as we develop ever more incredible technological ways to manipulate life. Religion can be a valuable conversation partner as we try to figure out how responsibly to proceed with wisdom and the long view.

What is your work day like?

Seldom is one day like the next. That said, I try to focus on my writing for at least some of the morning, and I do that at home. I write nearly every day, having discovered that I’m really unpleasant otherwise. I love my students and have terrific colleagues, but it’s tough to balance the demands of teaching, committee work, and other school stuff with doing research and crafting good writing. At my university, we have a high teaching load and are perennially short-staffed, so it can be really hard to carve out writing time. I’ve been lucky to have some “release time” here and there. My Richmond house is about one beautiful mile from campus, so I usually commute 20 minutes on foot and don’t have to worry about parking. I love that. Since moving to Charlottesville, I do sometimes make a long drive in to school at VCU; but once there, I settle back into the little Fan house for a few days. Update: I resigned from VCU. I am now Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at beautiful UVA and writing full-time. I still spend some time in Richmond, a town that I adore, and do miss meeting with the lively students in religious studies classes; but I’m loving the writing life and making good progress on this next book…

What’s next?

I’m working on a project that I’ve tentatively titled… no, wait, that’s a surprise.Anyway, I’m captivated by a particular moment in history, and the role of one guy, in particular. Without going into too much detail here, I wonder what connection there is between Cyrus II (the Great), who founded the Persian empire, and the development of the Bible. I’m curious about Cyrus himself (called “messiah” in the Bible), his own religious beliefs, what made him such an incredibly effective leader, and how much give and take of writers and ideas there might have been throughout his empire (spanning modern Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, as far as India). It’s a fascinating time in religious history, and Cyrus continues to captivate.

Update: Since the time that I wrote that last paragraph, the project has changed. My interest in Cyrus and in those times and places remains; but the project has become historical fiction and focuses especially on a couple of women — the historical Amytis, Cyrus’s aunt once married to Nebuchadnezzar who later marries Cyrus; and the historical Atossa, Cyrus’s daughter and the first woman to survive a radical mastectomy. It’s also expanded in scope. At present, it’s looking like a trilogy, though each book can stand alone. It’s been an exciting journey of discovery. I’ve been learning loads of concrete information gleaned from all sorts of places including archaeological excavations, ancient inscriptions (including the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, and records of the ancient Babylonian Egibi Corporation’s history and doings, e.g.), and of course the hard work of scholar specialists. I’m having a ball and hope you’ll stay tuned for what’s shaping up to be an epic soap opera of ancient Persia.