Dara Horn‘s Jewish roots have taught her all things return: in A Guide for the Perplexed, Joseph son of Jacob lives through Josie, a modern tech wiz on a quest to preserve memory.
Zola: What drew you to Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, the philosophical work that offers its title to your novel?
Dara Horn: I first encountered Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed as a teenager, when my family’s teacher of generations—a man who taught my mother Hebrew as a child, and taught me and my siblings when we were children too—introduced me to that book and its world. What fascinated me about it, then and now, is its approach to the eternal question of fate and free will, of how much of our lives is within our control and how much is beyond it.
This used to be a religious question, but I’ve noticed that today the most rigorously rational people often believe passionately in predestination—not that our lives are predetermined by God, but that our lives are predetermined by genes, or by brain chemistry, or on a cosmic level, by physical laws. I wanted to explore the question, in this age of total information, of what it might really mean for people to have what Maimonides calls absolute free will.
Zola: The protagonist, Josie, and her sister, Judith, have a tense relationship inspired by the biblical Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. You yourself have three siblings, two of whom also write. Did your relationship with them help you craft that sibling rivalry?
DH: Fortunately, no! While we had the expected fights as children, our relationships as adults are profound and irreplaceable, all the more so because we are all in creative fields. (My younger sister Ariel Horn published a novel a few years ago; my older sister Jordana Horn is a journalist and essayist; and my brother Zach Horn is an animator who recently won his second Emmy.) I speak to nearly all of them daily, and see them several times a week. We read and critique each other’s work, and we also still write and perform stories and poems for our parents together, just as we did as children. I’ve even given characters from my sister’s novel cameos in one of my own books. Sibling relationships are the subject of some of the world’s oldest stories because siblings are people who share a past, but not necessarily a future. Yet I’ve been very blessed to share so much of my life with mine.
Zola: A Guide for the Perplexed weaves together several plots and timelines—which were you first inspired to write about, and how did you conceive of the others?
DH: I’ve been drawn to the biblical story of Joseph since childhood—maybe because I am one of four siblings, and as children we often would have sold each other into slavery if we’d had the chance! The dynamics of envy and commitment are so alive in that story in such a convincing way. This is my fourth novel, and after my last book (about Civil War spies), several readers asked me why my books tend to focus on male characters. I had never thought about it before, but I always love a challenge. So it occurred to me to write a kind of Joseph story in contemporary times, but with women characters instead of men. That led to the character of Josephine Ashkenazi, the software prodigy whose programs essentially allow her to interpret dreams.
I really wanted to write a purely contemporary book, but I seem to be incapable of that. I always feel the pull of the past in everything I write. American culture is obsessed with the new and is founded on the conviction that everything that happens to Americans is unprecedented. But the Jewish culture I grew up with suggests the opposite—that the past always repeats. So I have a constant urge to seek parallels in the past, and whether it’s because I’m looking for them or because they are genuinely there, I always seem to find them.
The story of the discovery of the Cairo Genizah—a massive repository of over 100,000 medieval documents that had been dumped, unsorted, over the centuries into a storage room in a thousand-year-old synagogue in Cairo—is such an Indiana Jones tale that it almost writes itself. But what amazed me about it was how familiar it felt. Today technology allows us to amass endless information about our own personal lives. But when the quantity of material is so vast, saving everything becomes eerily similar to saving nothing. Just unpacking those 100,000 documents took nearly a hundred years.
The Genizah story ought to be an irrelevant historical curiosity. But to me it feels very similar to the digital lives we live today. The feeling of sinking into a bottomless pit of memories is familiar to me even from looking at my family’s thousands of digital photos. Today, as then, people like to save everything; it offers a kind of protection against mortality. But the real human power is the power of forgetting—of choosing, out of that bottomless pit, what’s worth saving, and shaping those carefully selected memories into a story.
Zola: You paint a vivid image of both nineteenth-century and post-revolution Egypt. What was your research process like once you decided on these settings?
DH: I have four very young children, so while I had been to Egypt before as a tourist, going back wasn’t an option for me—especially since shortly after I started writing the book, they had a revolution, which also meant I had to change my plot! For contemporary Egypt, I read memoirs by Egyptian writers and spoke extensively with people I knew who had lived there. For nineteenth-century Egypt, I read a lot of letters, diaries and essays about Egypt at that time. Solomon Schechter, the Cambridge professor who “discovered” the massive medieval document dump called the Cairo Genizah, also happened to have been a terrific writer and wrote several essays about his experiences, full of wit and verve. A lot of the dialogue spoken by him in my book is actually drawn from his own words.
Zola: Many of your characters are inspired by biblical and historical figures. Do you find a difference when you’re writing a character of your own creation and one that comes with an already established backstory and personality? Do you seek to live up to what people expect of those biblical/historical characters, or do you try to write them in a fresh way?
DH: My contemporary characters’ lives are inspired by the stories of biblical figures, but they don’t hew to those figures all that closely. So those characters are really entirely my own; all the biblical figure really gives me is a defining trait or two. (The biblical Joseph is talented and arrogant, for instance, and so is my software-developing main character. But there are many ways to be talented and arrogant.)
As for the historical figures, I’m usually writing about people whose personal lives aren’t well known, so there is a great deal of room for creativity. But when I’m writing about a historical character, I do try my absolute best to be loyal to the life and voice of that person. That has less to do with what people expect of such characters—who really has any expectations of Solomon Schechter’s personality, or of Maimonides’ relationships with his family?—than it does with my own private need to be honest, to read as much as I can and try to re-create a real person in a way that honors who they really were. Of course that still provides a lot of creative space. Maimonides died in 1204, so no one is going to prove me wrong. But in one of my previous books I wrote from the point of view of Der Nister, a Soviet Yiddish writer who died in a gulag in 1950. One of the most gratifying moments of my career was when an old woman in Israel, whose father had worked with him and who had lived across the hall from him for many years, met with me in Jerusalem to ask me, “How did you know him so well?”
Zola: In addition to writing novels, you’ve taught literature at Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College. Do you think the experience of being a professor has influenced your writing at all?
DH: It has made me very careful about the uses of the past. Since my work is in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, my literature courses are always partly history courses (out of necessity, since American students can’t be expected to know the contexts for these works). The scholar’s need to make sure that one is being true to someone else’s lived experience is very important to me, and I try to be very aware of avoiding clichés and romanticism when it comes to creating a real world that I don’t live in. But as far as influencing my writing in a literary sense? No. I don’t write a book the way I would analyze a book. When I’m writing a book, that book doesn’t exist yet!
Zola: Has your writing influenced how you teach literature?
DH: I’m much more aware of the mechanics of how a book gets written than most literature scholars would be. Sometimes my students will ask me about a phrase a writer uses, and I think, “Well, he had to say something about how she reacted there, because otherwise there’d be too many lines of dialogue in a row without a break!” I also take much more seriously the ways that publishing realities have always shaped what people write. In my field of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, for instance, one finds many masterful stories from a certain period that are related to the Jewish holidays. It’s easy to assume that this is because of the writers’ deep connections with religious traditions, but the truth is that Hebrew and Yiddish publications ran literary supplements on holidays and solicited holiday-themed fiction from major writers. That’s the kind of thing I’d dismiss as trivial if I weren’t a writer myself.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.