Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Sandalwood Tree includes an introduction, discussion questions--with special commentary from the author, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elle Newmark. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Martin and Evie Mitchell are Americans, living with their small son in an Indian village in the Himalayas in 1947, the infamous year of India’s war of Partition. Martin, a historian, is there on a Fulbright Fellowship to complete his Ph.D. thesis on Partition. But as a Jewish veteran of World War II, his demons have followed him to India, and he and Evie are growing further and further apart.
In their colonial bungalow, Evie unearths a packet of letters written by two Victorian women between 1855 and 1856. The letters hint at scandal and drama, but they are damaged and incomplete. They offer just enough information to intrigue Evie, and she decides to find out what happened to them. Since she and Martin are trapped in a remote hill station, unable to travel because of the unrest surrounding Partition, Evie has plenty of time to go sleuthing.
Her search leads her through the temples and bazaars of India as well as through the dying society of the British Raj, and she uncovers the story of two unconventional Victorian women and their forbidden loves. Evie also discovers insights, embedded in their story, that could save her marriage.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The Sandalwood Tree begins with a quote from Adela Winfield: “[D]eath steals everything but our stories.” Later Evie paraphrases this as “[A]ll we really have are our stories” (p. 330) What do you think of this? Do you agree? Do you think our stories are the only things that last?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I do believe that, but our stories can encompass many things, including the way we touched other people’s lives. Our stories can be inspiring or they can be cautionary tales.
Some might say that our children comprise some sort of genetic immortality but I don’t buy it. Everyone—including our children—is a complete person in his or her own right, with his or her own identity, choices, and story.
2. The novel tells two stories in alternating chapters, both set in the same home ninety years apart. Did you prefer one storyline or set of characters to the other? Did you find one more interesting or compelling? Why?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I found them equally interesting to write because they deal with the same issues from different points of view and in different settings. Both stories required research, which was fascinating, and both stories required the fleshing-out of fictional characters, which is always challenging.
3. Evie says, “If you understand the lunatic nuances involved in keeping up appearances you’ll understand why I spent an insane amount of time fighting dust and dirt in India,” (p. 3) and later, “I couldn’t fix our insides, so I fixed our outside. . . . I vanquished dirt and disorder wherever I found it, and it helped, a little.” (p. 10) Do you think Evie’s impulse to control what she can in order to compensate for the things she cannot is a typical human reaction? What do you think she gains and loses by focusing on these outward problems instead of the real ones?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: She gains the time she needs to try and figure out what to do. She loses the time she might spend doing it, if she knew what it was.
I do believe that the impulse to control our surroundings is borne of a need to feel in control of our lives. It’s comforting to look around a neat, organized room and know that everything is exactly where you put it and where you want it to be. It fosters a sense of control.
But in fact, anything can happen to anyone at any time. In 2009, I suddenly became seriously ill and spent more than two months in the hospital. I was on a ventilator and had no control over anything. I couldn’t move or talk and much of the time didn’t know what was real and what was a drug-induced hallucination. When I came home, my first impulse was to assert control over my life. I was still recovering, but I organized drawers and shopped online for gadgets that would allow me the comfort and independence I did not have in the hospital. Like Evie, it helped—a little.
With the help of my housekeeper, I got drawers and closets beautifully organized—and then I had a relapse and my father died. Ultimately, control is an illusion. There is nothing wrong with preferring organization to chaos—I surely do—but it’s a mistake to think it means anything more than what it is. A tidy closet is just a tidy closet. Evie knows this as well as I do, but the need for control will express itself by whatever means available.
4. The British characters often mock the Indians’ superstitions throughout the novel. Is Evie’s need for order a superstition in itself? Do you think there’s a difference between her need for order and the natives’ need for their rituals? Are they driven by the same impulses and desires?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. But no, I do not think ritual superstition is driven by the same needs as compulsive behavior.
Superstitions are learned; they are a reaction to fear. Perform this or that ritual and you’ll be safe. Follow these rules and you’ll be safe. Knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, don’t step on that crack, don’t break that mirror, pray to the right God . . . and you’ll be safe.
Compulsive behavior can have an element of fear, particularly if it’s clinical OCD. “I must lock the door three times and then knock twice, or it will not truly be locked.” This behavior is just as irrational as superstition, but it is personal. People who suffer from OCD make up their own rituals, whereas religious or social superstitions are part of a group consciousness.
In Evie’s case, it is not superstition (she knows that cleaning her house will not fix her marriage) and it is not OCD—she keeps busy but she does not attack the floors with a toothbrush and a Q-tip while chanting a mantra. Evie’s compulsion to clean is an exercise in avoidance and in maintaining the illusion of control—like me and my tidy closets. When the surface of the water is still and calm, it makes the roiling depths less frightening.
5. One of the major themes of The Sandalwood Tree is the resilience of the Indian people. When Evie first arrives in India, she says “I wanted to . . . ferret out the mystery of [India’s] resilience. I wanted to know how India had managed to hold on to her identity in spite of a continuous stream of foreign conquerors slogging through her jungles and over her mountains, bringing their new gods and new rules.” (p. 2) What did you think of this ability of “bending rather than breaking.” (p. 67) Do you think it’s universal to human nature? Unique to the Indian people? Something developed over time out of necessity?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I do not think bending without breaking is universal to human nature—quite the opposite. In my experience, people will fight to the death to protect what they value and whom or what they love. We see it over and over again in history. Bending without breaking takes practice and humility and yes, the Indian people have had lots of practice in withstanding wave after wave of invaders over many centuries.
I think part of their ability to hold on to their identity comes from the vastness and complexity of the subcontinent itself. It isn’t until you get there that you realize how old and huge and varied it is, and how solidly entrenched the customs are. All the imperialists who would “own” India found it complicated, unwieldy, and ultimately fatal.
The Indian people did break once. Their one military insurrection, the First War of Independence (or the Sepoy Mutiny, as the British called it) was a disaster. India is so complicated that even some Indians fought on the side of the British. India could never have defeated Great Britain by force.
Gandhi understood this. He faced down one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen by bending without breaking. He convinced the Indian people to practice their private passive resistance in public, and it worked. How do you defeat a man who won’t hit you back? And if you do hit him, another man will take his place, and then another. Either your arm will get too tired to go on hitting people, or you will eventually slink off in shame.
The paradox, of course, is the ongoing animosity between Hindus and Muslims. I am baffled by the question of how a people who worked together to defeat a string of mighty empires by passive resistance cannot get along with each other.
6. Evie says, “Denial is the first refuge of the frightened, and . . . [I]t works—for a while.” (p. 5) What does this quote mean to you? Do you agree with Evie? Where in the novel do the characters choose denial over facing reality? Does it help or hurt them?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: Denial is often the first response to fear. What do most people say when they are given bad news? “No.” They say, “No.” In Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dying, denial is the first. I think it’s an automatic response to try and push pain and unpleasantness away, wish it out of existence. Usually we get past it and deal with whatever the difficult reality is, but it is possible to get stuck in denial, just as it is possible to get stuck in guilt or anger. In the end, of course, denial is self-defeating. No problem can be resolved until it is acknowledged.
7. Elle Newmark uses foreshadowing throughout the novel, hinting at things to come. Evie says of Billy’s stuffed dog, “I wouldn’t have taken Spike away even if I’d known the trouble the toy was going to cause later.” (p. 13) What other instances of foreshadowing did you notice?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: Obviously, I know where all the foreshadowing is, so I’ll pass on this one.
8. Evie and Martin speak the same language, but they barely communicate. Yet Evie is able to make herself understood with her students, servants, and the shopkeepers she meets throughout her day using limited language and body movements. For much of the novel, Adela and Felicity can communicate only through letters, and later Felicity and Jonathan communicate through their poetry. What do you think this says about communication? Do you think if the intent is there, someone can always get his or her point across?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I think communication comes not only from intent (Evie intends to communicate with her husband, she just doesn’t succeed), communication comes from emotional intimacy, or at least emotional neutrality, and a willingness to understand what the other person is saying.
9. Felicity and Adela live in a time where a woman had very few choices, and society had very specific expectations of them. In spite of these, they manage to carve out nontraditional lives, vowing to “scrap the rules and live a life of joy, no matter what the price.” (p. 28) What do you think makes them different from the other women of the era, able to make these choices? Do you think the price they paid for those choices was too high?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: They were different from most other Englishwomen of the era in that they did not live for marriage, motherhood, and social standing. But there were, in fact, a surprising number of British women in India who flouted the rules of society. Perhaps being so far from home fostered a sense of freedom. Most were relatively quiet about it, but some didn’t give a hoot for what anyone thought of them. One of the most colorful was a woman who married a Pathan warrior and spent her life writing poetry in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The price those women paid was to be ostracized by British society, but they weren’t much interested in being accepted there anyway, so I suspect the price was inconsequential to them.
10. Throughout The Sandalwood Tree there is a huge dichotomy between the rich foreigners, with their servants and extravagance, and the abject poverty of so many of the natives. Did this disparity bother you? Do you think it’s inevitable that there be such a difference between classes?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: There have always been rich and poor and I don’t think that’s going to change in the foreseeable future. That is not to say it doesn’t bother me, only that it is the world we live in.
I planned my first trip to India in 1988. It is my habit to research a place before I go in order to enrich the experience. But what I read about the poverty in India was so appalling I cancelled my trip.
It would be another thirteen years before I got to India. By then I had become a seasoned traveler, having visited many developing countries, and my emotional hide had become tougher, perhaps even jaded. However, I will never be unmoved by the sight of children beggars. That’s the most difficult thing for me.
Like the rest of the world, India is changing. Mumbai is Bollywood, Delhi is commerce and tourism brings in billions—all resulting in an emergent middle class. But outside the cities, in the countryside, it still looks downright Biblical.
I do think some sort of class division is inevitable, but in India, the issue is further complicated by the caste system and the karmic notion that you have earned the life you are living. Whether you’re rich or poor, you deserve it. It’s one thing to give a person a job with a decent wage; it’s quite another to uproot an ancient social/religious system ingrained from birth. India will continue to change, but it will be slow.
11. The love affairs in the novel were all scandalous for their time: the interracial relationship between Jonathan Singh and Felicity, Adela’s lesbian relationship, Martin and Evie’s interfaith marriage. What does it say about the characters that they were all able to defy expectations and conventions? Did you find their decisions shocking?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: They were free-thinkers and shocking in their time, but I would find it rather depressing to think that anyone would be shocked today. It is people like that who move societies forward.
12. Evie says, “In 1945, they called it combat fatigue, but in the First World War they had called it shell shock, which is more accurate. . . . After Vietnam they started calling it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Stress? Please. The names for this mental illness became more sanitized with every war.” (p. 41) Martin is carrying serious scars from his time in the war and as a result closes Evie out and starts taking dangerous risks in his work. Do you think a person ever completely heals from seeing the atrocities of war? Do you think enough is done to care for veterans when they return?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I have never been to war and I don’t know how people heal from one. But I am part of the Vietnam generation and I have met far too many Vietnam vets who were permanently damaged by their war experience. Some cope; some do not. Some are cared for; some are not. I had an uncle who fought in WWII and although he returned to normal life, this mild-mannered man lived the rest of his life on the edge of rage.
As for caring for our veterans, I think we owe them whatever they need. Even though I consider Vietnam and Iraq to be unnecessary and immoral wars, the people who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in the service of this country deserve to be cared for when they return. They are not pawns to be used and discarded. They are human beings.
13. Evie refers to India as “a spiritual carnival complete with sideshows.” (pp. 111–112) The religious practices, divisions, and biases of the characters are a major theme in The Sandalwood Tree. Do you think it’s possible for conflicting faiths to live in harmony, or is the war in the name of religion that plagues human history inescapable?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: War in the name of religion is one of the great tragedies of the human condition. The “My god is better than your God” mentality is possibly the most dangerous mindset out there.
Is it inescapable? As long as anyone insists that they have cornered The Truth and they feel obliged to share it with people who don’t want it, there will be holy wars—the ultimate oxymoron. Then, of course, there are the wars that masquerade as “holy.” People with political and mercenary interests are happy to use zealots to further their own agendas.
Someone once said, “What if there was a war and no one showed up?” You could almost see the stars twinkling in her eyes. That is precisely the problem. Someone always shows up.
14. Most of the British families in the novel have traveled to India only to reecreate their lives at home, down to the same shops, food, and traditions. Why do you think this is? Do you think this is a reasonable way to create a comfortable environment for themselves, or a waste of an opportunity to experience something different? Do you think this insistence on holding on to their lifestyles is driven more by arrogance or fear?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: One of the first things that godlike Empire-builders do is to create colonies in their own likeness, making themselves comfortable by importing the world they know. Of course there is arrogance in taking possession of someone else’s country, and there is justifiable fear that the natives will not take kindly to it. But there is also an element of putting on a show of strength and wealth in order to awe the masses into submission. What peasant in a mud hut is willing to take on those rich, self-assured, powerful people who live in big Palladian villas?
The world is littered with the grand nineteenth century architecture of British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French colonists. These days, many of those places are museums or hotels, but you can find American fast food, movies, and music in all but the most remote places. I once found an Internet café on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The proprietor was wearing jeans and an I-heart-NY T-shirt.
Imperialists do not invade other countries to experience something different or to learn foreign customs. The merchants are there to make money, the politicians are there to establish power, the soldiers are there to keep people in line, and everybody else is there to support this artificial framework. And while they’re at it, they import their own comforts and customs. This is all inherent in imperialism.
15. Martin cannot forgive himself for the things he did, and didn’t do, during wartime. It is not until he tells Evie what happened, and she forgives him, that he can begin to forgive himself. Do you think Martin would be able to find any peace with his memories if he hadn’t shared them with Evie? Or do you think it’s only by not holding on to secrets that people can begin to get over them?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: Telling Evie his secret was the first step in letting go of it. Emotionally charged secrets that are held in can do nothing but fester.
16. Felicity’s pregnancy out of wedlock must be hidden, and Evie has to drop out of college when she becomes pregnant. “[I]n 1941 pregnant women simply didn’t belong in school; they barely belonged in public.” (p. 39) Do you think our society’s feelings toward pregnancy and childbirth have changed dramatically, or do you think there’s still a stigma attached to pregnancy in some ways, say to unwed mothers or pregnant women in positions of power or authority?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: The change might not be a complete 180-degree turnaround, but it is certainly dramatic, and it has happened very quickly. In the nineteenth century women were expected not even to leave their homes in their last trimester. One hundred years later, when I was pregnant in the late ’60s, maternity clothes were tents meant to minimize and hide as much as possible. Now we’ve seen a nude, hugely pregnant movie star on the cover of a national magazine. We have couples saying, “We’re pregnant.” Designers make maternity power suits for the pregnant CEO and we see pregnant women at the beach in two-piece suits. And why not?
When my daughter, who works in the male-dominated world of science, was pregnant with her second child, a coworker—an older man—said, “I don’t know how much use you’ll be in that condition. Pregnancy tends to make women a bit ditzy.” She nodded thoughtfully and said, “You know, it’s true. This massive rush of blood to the south can make a brain sluggish. Honestly, I don’t know how you guys deal with it on a daily basis. All thing considered, you’ve done quite well, having had this handicap since birth.”
When she came back from six months of maternity leave, the same man said, “You know, we’ve been pretty busy here. What have you got to show for your year?” She looked him up and down long enough to make him uncomfortable then said, “I grew a second brain. What did you do?”
See, that’s the difference. An insensitive or insecure man might still make a misogynistic remark, but he does so at his own peril. He might easily be talking to a confident woman, pregnant or not, who has no reservations about putting him in his place. That was not the case even thirty years ago.
17. Harry quotes Gandhi as saying, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” What do you think of this statement?
Elle Newmark joins your book club: I don’t think it is only coincidence that high crime rates are earmarks of poverty-stricken places. Desperate people do desperate things. Ordinary people are capable of anything when their survival is threatened, and dire poverty certainly threatens survival. Like war, poverty can make people revert to base behavior.
Poverty can even breed horror. In some places, including India, people sell their children when they are unable to feed them, preferring to see them as slaves than to watch them slowly starve to death. Sometimes they mutilate children in infancy to make them more sympathetic beggars, thinking they are giving them a way to earn their daily bread.
But the solution lies not only in providing food and shelter. The solution must include education. A healthy, educated person is an asset to society. A hungry, ignorant person is trouble. It seems quite obvious to me that it is in our own best interest to see that people are cared for and educated. I do not understand those who resent funding for health care and education. Depriving people of what they need to make a decent life can only damage society. Relentless poverty, like war, shrivels the soul and distorts one’s humanity, and that is why it is the worst form of violence.
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Make an Indian feast like the ones Habib cooks for Evie and Martin. (Although you might want to make yours less spicy.) One website that has Indian recipes is www.IndianFoodForever.com.
2. Martin is suffering from the effects of serving in Europe during World War II. Have the members of your reading group volunteer for a day with a veterans’ organization. You can find volunteer opportunities at www. va.volunteer.gov or www.dav.org/volunteers.
3. Although Gandhi is only a peripheral character in The Sandalwood Tree, he was hugely influential to this period of Indian history. Learn more about him at www.mkgandhi.org.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELLE NEWMARK
The Sandalwood Tree takes place in a very interesting place and two fascinating time periods. What made you choose this setting and these moments in time? What research did you do in writing the novel?
Love and war are universal themes and I wanted to write about both. I needed two love stories set against a backdrop of two wars to show the parallels in human behavior that transcend time and culture.
The research for The Sandalwood Tree was both extensive and fascinating. First I read general histories of both eras, and then I researched popular trends of times. For the Victorian story, I searched out rare, original diaries and journals kept by Victorian memsahibs living in India. Those women were some tough cookies! It wasn’t only a difficult life on a daily basis; there was also the ever-present specter of disease and death. You would never ask an Englishwoman in India how many children she had. You would ask how many living children she had.
Regarding my first-hand research, I first visited India in 2001 but only saw Mumbai, Kerala, and Rajasthan. So I went back in 2009 to refresh my memory about how India feels and sounds and smells, and to see the places in which the novel is set. I spent all of March driving around northern India, interviewing, rubbernecking, and taking notes. I found the people to be open and gracious and eager to share their thoughts and experiences. I still get email from my driver, Ramesh. He has promised to show me the real Rajasthan.
What draws you to the genre of historical fiction? Does the mixture of history and storytelling pose a challenge? Do you enjoy reading historical novels in addition to writing them?
I like a broad canvas and a rich palette for my books, and history offers both. The challenge is to write a story that doesn’t read like a history text and the key to that is character. If you identify with the humanity of the characters you understand their behavior and care about them, no matter where or when they are.
I read some historical fiction, but I’ll read anything that is well done, including nonfiction. It is exciting and liberating to remind myself that there is room in literature for many voices.
In The Sandalwood Tree, which facts and characters are historically based and which are created for the novel?
This is what is true:
-- Obviously Gandhi and the British viceroy Mountbatten are well-known historical figures. But the eccentric Englishwomen that Felicity and Adela admired were also real. Honoria Lawrence really did spend twenty-five years marching around India with her surveyor husband, and Fanny Parks really did have a pet squirrel named Jack Bunce and she really did travel extensively without her husband. Shocking!
-- General Reginald Dyer did perpetrate the very real massacre at Amritsar and was subsequently acquitted and rewarded for his actions.
-- The First War of Independence (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or the Sepoy Rebellion) did occur in 1857, and Indians did call Britain’s indiscriminate war of revenge the Devil’s Wind.
-- Mangal Pandey was the first sepoy to defy his British commander. He was hanged, but his actions sparked the First War of Independence.
-- Vicount John Charles Canning was a governor-general in India during the First War of Independence. He was the lone British voice to call for restraint during Britain’s war of retribution, and it earned him the sarcastic title of “Clemency Canning.” He was roundly criticized.
-- Dalhousie was the British governor-general of India whose arrogant policies led to the First War of Independence. Dalhousie dismissed the uprising as a “mutiny of peons.”
-- Muhammed Ali Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League, an opponent of Gandhi, and a vigorous supporter of Partition. He advocated a separate Muslim state, Pakistan, and he became its first governor-general. He is known as “the father of a nation.”
-- Simla was indeed the queen of hill stations and the destination of choice during the hot weather for any and all who could afford it. It is now known as Shimla. The mall is now reached by a rickety outdoor elevator that rises halfway up the side of a mountain to a suspended bridge that leads to another equally rickety elevator that takes you farther up the mountain and deposits you on the mall. One can still visit Christ Church, the Gaiety Theatre, the magnificent Viceregal Lodge, the Willow Bakers, and Clark’s Hotel with its cozy blue and white Tudor architecture.
-- The Fishing Fleet was a tradition followed by young British women for more than a hundred years. Military men in India were given a furlough back to England about once every eight years, so it was considered expedient for the women to go to them—particularly women with limited prospects in England. Englishmen in India outnumbered Englishwomen about five to one.
Thousands of single women undertook the perilous voyage to India—fishing for husbands. Until 1830, that meant sailing down around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The Cape was known for violent storms, and more than one ship was lost there. Later, ships went through the Red Sea to Alexandria, and then continued by land to pick up another ship that took them to India. In 1869 the Suez Canal was finished and the voyage became briefer, more comfortable and less dangerous.
-- During WWII, there was a small POW camp in Dharamsala for Italian POWs who were allowed to roam free because there was nowhere to go. While in India, I spoke with a colonel retired from the Indian army who remembers the Italians who loved Indian beer too well and sometimes spent the night passed out on his verandah. When that sort of behavior became too common, a small jail was built, and public drunkenness or failure to report in at night got them ten days behind bars.
-- Partition is all too real. Great Britain sliced India up into three parts: India (or Hindustan) in the middle, with East and West Pakistan for Muslims on either side. During that frantic, bloody shuffle of populations, it is estimated that one million people were killed and twelve and a half million displaced. In 1971, East Pakistan asserted its independence and changed its name to Bangladesh.
As far as I could tell, Partition has done exactly nothing to ease tension between Hindus and Muslims. There are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan, and everyone knows who is who. With an indignant edge in his voice, a Hindu man said, “They live in India, they eat Indian food, and they speak Hindi. But at a cricket match, who do you think they cheer for?” He bulged his eyes at me, daring me to guess. “Pakistan!” he shouted. And then he spat.
One night in Amritsar, I went to the India/Pakistan border to witness the ceremony of lowering the flags and closing the gate (yes, there’s a gate). There were thousands of people there, and it had the atmosphere of a carnival. Squeaky Indian music blared from a megaphone, children danced, and old women in saris and flip-flops waved flags—Indian flags on one side of the border and Pakistani flags on the other. Vendors roamed around selling roasted corn, cold drinks, and souvenirs.
After standing in a line akin to those outside women’s restrooms, I was patted down by a bored, shrouded woman in the “security tent.” I was then ushered through a crowd of people to a front row where I was seated with the six other white people who were there. I didn’t ask for that seat. I was white and it was simply assumed that I would insist on it.
When it came time for the ceremony, the music stopped and a deep voice came over the megaphone asking in a slightly sinister tone, “Hindustan?” and the Indian crowd went wild. “Forever!” they screamed in Hindi. “Hindustan forever!” On the other side, an equally somber voice asked, “Pakistan?” and the other crowd erupted in a riot of patriotism. This went on, back and forth, for several minutes. Then there was a brief warning (spoken quickly and quietly, like the side effects in drug commercials), cautioning people not to say anything derogatory about the other country. Apparently, there have been incidents.
The Indian and Pakistani soldiers put on an elaborate show of goose-stepping, flinging weapons around, and glaring at each other. If looks could kill . . . Eventually, they met at the gate, did one last well-choreographed show of force—threatening gestures and guns pointed at each other, your basic warrior kitsch—then they shook hands grudgingly and closed the gate. The flags were lowered so carefully and slowly I could barely see them moving. This was to ensure that neither flag flew higher than the other at any time.
And they do that every night, 365 days a year.
It’s supposed to be a tourist attraction, a fierce, burlesque bit of street theater. But I couldn’t help remembering that Hindus and Muslims have been fighting since, well, forever, and now—oh, God—they both have nuclear weapons. It was kind of a buzz kill.
You’ve traveled extensively. Can you tell us a little about where you’ve been? Is there anywhere that you most felt connected, or liked the best? Where do you most dream of visiting?
I feel most connected to Europe; it is very familiar to me and I enjoy it tremendously. I made my first voyage when I was four years old but the only thing I remember about that is a storm at sea. Somehow, I became separated from my parents and I climbed into a lifeboat to hide. I heard bells and shouting, I saw flashlight beams slicing through the gray rain, but I didn’t know they were looking for me until I felt myself being lifted out of the lifeboat and a man saying, “I found her.” I’m a grandmother now, but I still think it makes sense to hide in a lifeboat during a storm. Doesn’t it?
I’ve visited Europe many times since then. I still have a bunch of warm, wildly gesticulating relatives in Northern Italy and between their hesitant English and my truly terrible Italian we always have a wonderful time together.
In 1985 my husband and I moved to Germany on a three-year contract, but we liked living in Europe so much we stayed for seven years. We both worked for the U.S. army, he as a physician and I as an illustrator, and we traveled at every opportunity. We went to London for theater and bookstores, I took cooking lessons in Paris, we got stranded in Prague, drove lazily along the Italian Riviera, stuffing ourselves with fresh seafood, had tea at the Russian army post in the former East Berlin, listened to gypsy violins in Budapest, and we vacationed in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, and—our favorite—the former Yugoslavia.
Europe feels like a second home not only because I’ve been visiting all my life, but also because seven years as a resident molded me into a more serious and mindful person. Europe is old and war-torn and world-weary, and it helped me understand what it means to be human and American. I started writing fiction while living in Europe.
My husband and I were planning our fourth trip to Yugoslavia when the war in Bosnia broke out. It was a new and terrible experience to see pictures in magazines of streets I’d walked on reduced to rubble, to see corpses rotting in the gutter and wonder if I’d met any of them when they were alive, selling apples or T-shirts.
We were in Europe when Chernobyl blew up, and in the aftermath we were told to wash our fruits and vegetables with soapy water. Irradiated water! It was absurd. The thing is, there was nothing to be done; it happened and we would have to live with the consequences. Washing our food with soap gave us the illusion of doing something useful, like cleaning and organizing gives the illusion of control. Everyone knew the soap was pointless, but we did it anyway. I was remembering Chernobyl when I wrote about Evie responding to a loss of control by keeping busy and organized.
We were also in Germany when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Troops in Germany were among the first to go because they were relatively close by. I was working at a military installation and I saw the toll it took on the families left behind. No one knew it would be brief any more than we knew Iraq would last nine years.
Every day I drove to work through crowds of protestors holding signs—no blood for oil—and I learned how to check my car for bombs because we had American license plates. Armored tanks patrolled the base and the electrified perimeters were switched on. My coworkers came to the office armed and in full battle dress. When I drove to the American grocery store or post office, I often crawled at 5 miles per hour behind a tank with a machine gun trained in my direction.
Europe is my second home because it is my heritage, I know it, I love it, and it opened my mind and heart to a wider worldview.
I find Asia and Africa intriguing because they are the most exotic to me. Memories of the antiquities along the Nile, the klongs of Bangkok, the Masai villages in Kenya, and the rainforests of Malaysia are almost dreamlike. I feel enormously privileged to have seen these places, and enormously greedy for wanting to see more.
I would like to see the city of Fez in Morocco for its Arabian Nights ambiance, and Tanzania for its natural beauty, and Zanzibar just because of the name. I’d also like to see much more of China (I’ve only visited Canton), I’d like to spend a serene week at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan, and there are still places in India . . . oh, I could go on and on. I love to travel because I never feel quite so alive as when I’m seeing something for the first time, and if there is an element of uncertainty or even risk, all the better.
Both The Book of Unholy Mischief (titled The Chef’s Apprentice in paperback) and The Sandalwood Tree go into great detail on all aspects of food: buying, preparing, eating. Do you enjoy cooking yourself? Did you make any of the dishes you wrote about in the novels?
I’m Italian! I grew up in a big, boisterous extended family that revolved around food and music. There was always someone cooking or eating or singing or all three. My father once sang in an opera—I have no idea how it happened, but I’ve seen pictures—and I have no doubt he celebrated afterward with a fine meal. My mother had a lovely alto voice and she sang with the church choir as well as at home while she cooked. When we got a hi-fi (very chic in the ’50s), she wore it out singing along with her Enrico Caruso records.
But food came first; food was the centerpiece of life. Food was a way to express love and creativity and respect—an intimate way to be together.
And not just any food; my father was a master chef, so the standards were high. The number one rule was fresh. Everything had to be fresh and in season and the presentation must meet a certain aesthetic standard. For my first communion party, my father made a display piece of lobsters dressed in little overalls, holding fishing poles and sitting around a miniature pond stocked with live goldfish.
However, elaborate displays or not, every meal required that attention be paid to preparation and presentation. On special occasions, meals were almost ritualistic. I have fond memories of holiday meals with hand-crocheted tablecloths, old china, heavy silver, solemn toasts made in my grandfather’s booming voice, and about a hundred courses.
Afterward, I dried dishes with my mother and grandmother and aunts while we sang Italian folk songs and the men played pinochle. I can see the raised eyebrows of liberated women everywhere, but don’t worry. After the women joined the card game they beat the pants off the men, who by then had finished off a couple of bottles of homemade wine.
My husband introduced me to Indian food. He was a volunteer doctor on the Hope Ship when it docked for two months in Sri Lanka in 1970 (then called Ceylon) and he acquired a taste for hot, complicated curries. We lived in Denver, and he knew a Singhalese family in Boulder who ran a restaurant; we went there on one of our first dates. The food was so hot I thought the lining of my mouth had been burned off. I have since toughened up.
Strangely, south Indian food is the hottest. As you go north, the weather gets cooler and so does the food. You’d think it would be the other way around, wouldn’t you?
In the early ’80s, I had a friend who was dating an engineer from India, and he taught me that the secret is to grind your spices fresh each time. Start with whole cardamom pods, whole coriander seeds, whole cumin, whole mustard seeds, etc. It’s not that big a deal—you can use a mortar and pestle or an electric coffee grinder—and it makes all the difference in the world.
Out of all the recipes in The Book of Unholy Mischief I actually made only two—Luciano’s two failed cheesecakes. I needed to know how they would look and smell in order to describe them. But I didn’t taste them. They did not look taste-worthy. The other recipes were not painstakingly researched Renaissance dishes. I totally made them up as metaphors. I do know how to cook, though, and I’m pretty sure that you could follow the basic ingredients, substitute here and there, and come up with a decent dish. Capon Stew in Mare’s Milk, for example, would be just fine as chicken in cream sauce. But each recipe in Unholy Mischief was there to make a point.
In your first novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief, one of the main characters was inspired by your father. Was anyone in The Sandalwood Tree based upon a real person?
I had a Jewish uncle who served in WWII. He was among the American troops that liberated Dachau and he never recovered from that experience.
I was close to Uncle Herb; he taught me to love books, discussed them with me, helped me with my homework, and gave me drawing lessons. He had little formal education but he was an autodidact, very intelligent, an avid reader, and he had the heart of an artist. He produced some lovely sculptures. He was also an atheist and a communist and, though I didn’t know it at the time, he occasionally planted a few subversive notions when my Catholic parents weren’t within earshot.
He talked about the war a lot, but whenever he said the word “Dachau” his wife immediately left the room. He would begin talking about what they saw there and end up shouting incoherently in a mixture of English, Yiddish, and German. He was a big man with a strong, deep voice that reverberated through the house. He could look scary when he got worked up. Just when you thought someone would have to step in to calm him down, he would run a hand through his thick dark hair, make a disgusted sound, and fall silent.
He never described a massacre, but it was always clear that there was something more than the horror of Dachau itself tormenting him. No one ever pressed him on the subject. We didn’t want to know.
When I was researching the 1947 story for The Sandalwood Tree, I needed something specific to haunt Martin and I remembered my uncle. I googled Dachau and my jaw dropped at the avalanche of information about this massacre I had never before heard of. There are first-hand accounts and even photos, and I caught myself looking for my uncle’s face among the American troops.
My husband, who is older than I, remembers hearing about the massacre after the war. “But the whole thing suddenly disappeared,” he said. “Replaced by other news.”
Not surprising. There was and is little sympathy for Nazis, and the general feeling was that they got what they deserved. No one would be eager to punish American soldiers who killed Nazis in a concentration camp. Our boys were heroes, and I’m not being sarcastic; they were good men and that is the point. They were good men trying to do an impossible job. What happened at Dachau is not a comment on the men who took part in the massacre; it is a comment on war. War twists the humanity out of people.
Uncle Herb was Jewish and Dachau must have felt terribly personal to him, but he was a good man, a smart man, and he knew the difference between war and murder. Still, I think he probably wanted to kill those Nazis, and there’s the rub. But who wouldn’t? Imagine wading into a nightmare of 32,000 starving people, dead and dying, the piled corpses, the cholera, the stink, seeing the crematorium, and having the well-fed perpetrators standing right there in front of you in their Nazi uniforms. Thirty years later my uncle was still enraged.
I’ll never know what he did that day, but at the very least, he stood by and watched, and I think that might be what he could never come to terms with—because he was a good man.
I didn’t find him in the photos, and that was a relief. But I know he was there, and I know—everyone knew—that the experience scarred his soul permanently. I always felt he could have been a happier person if somehow he could have let go of Dachau. But, you see, he never told us.
Having Martin confess to Evie and having her forgive him healed something in my memory of Uncle Herb.
All the other characters are completely fictional.
The Indian people’s superstitions are a pervading theme throughout the novel. Why do you think people cling so closely to superstition? Do you have any superstitions of your own?
We should remember that what we call superstition they call religion. But no matter what you call it, I think it exists because people are afraid. We want to believe someone is in charge, that everything happens for a reason, and that there is some kind of Grand Plan. I don’t know whether there is or not, and I don’t believe anyone else does either, but it’s comforting to think so.
Rules and superstitions make people feel safe. As I’ve said before, it’s reassuring to believe that if you just follow this or that set of rules you’ll be safe. Knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, don’t step on that crack, don’t break that mirror, pray to the right God . . . and you’ll be safe. Ah, what a relief.
The truth is we don’t know the answers to the big questions and living with that kind of uncertainty is challenging; for some people it’s just too scary. So we invent things to make ourselves feel better. Perform havan and the rain will come. Bury a statue of St. Joseph and you’ll sell your house. Pray to a statue and get your wish. Cover your head, take off your shoes, swallow this wafer, bow three times . . . and you’ll be safe.
Personally, I am afflicted by a condition that I call MKJSS—Momentary Knee-Jerk Superstition Syndrome. It’s tied up with all kinds of early conditioning and religious training—that’s the syndrome part. When I see a black cat I think witch for about as long as it takes to say the word. Then I feel like a fool. That’s the momentary knee-jerk part. When I enter a church or temple I think sacred place, again for as long as it takes to speak the words. Then I remember that all places are sacred.
I harbor all the same superstitions as anyone else with my background, but I try hard to keep my MKJSS in remission.
You had a nontraditional publishing experience with your first novel. Can you tell us about it?
The long and short of it is that I broke some rules to make it happen.
At the tender age of fifty-five, I had an epic collection of rejection letters, but I needed to write so I kept at it. At fifty-six, I finished my second novel and enjoyed a moment of elation when it caught the eye of a reputable agent. It was finally happening!
And then it didn’t.
So I wrote a third novel and couldn’t even get anyone to look at it. Finally, one black day I accepted that my work would never find a publisher. It was crushing and I wallowed in the tragedy of my own crucified ego—the unappreciated artist. Oy vey. On my sixtieth birthday, I sulked around in rumpled pajamas and ate cold pizza.
Then I got angry. No one wanted my books? Fine. I’d do it myself. I self-published and my literary baby made its debut to a shrieking silence and a riot of apathy. My book languished on Amazon until one night, as I watched a glitzy book launch party on Sex in the City, I got an idea. I gambled on a do-it-yourself website and an Internet marketing course. I would throw a virtual book launch party.
It had all the elements of a party: for entertainment there was a colorful book trailer with music, followed by some excellent reviews. Food and good company took the form of witty quotes from famous people superimposed over mouth-watering food graphics (Food for Thought), and the party favors were a big bunch of free downloads. Just buy a book on Amazon, use your order number as a password, and download whatever you like.
It was designed to create a one-day surge in sales on Amazon that would push my book up to the bestseller list. The idea was to parlay that bestseller status into something bigger, although the mechanics of that last part were hazy.
Everything was ready to go when my son said, “Why not invite agents and editors to your party?”
That’s where breaking the rules comes in. Agents don’t like to be approached by writers in any way other than what they lay out in their guidelines. Editors don’t like to be approached by writers at all. But I figured I had nothing to lose, so, I wrote brief personal invitations with a link to the party site to 400 agents and editors.
By noon on the day of the party agents were clamoring to read my masterpiece. After writing for more than twenty-five years, I made an agreement with a peerless agent at William Morris within twenty-four hours.
My book did hit the Amazon bestseller list, not that it mattered anymore.
Two weeks after my virtual party, the book went to auction. Bidding was due to start at 11:00 am but at 8:00 am the phone rang. My peerless agent said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Yes,” although I wasn’t. She said, “Two-book deal, Simon & Schuster.” Then I sat down.
In the following heady days, foreign sales began. The Book of Unholy Mischief would be published in a dozen languages around the world.
But here’s the ironic part: Now that I’m free of the hunger to be published, I see very clearly that the deepest satisfaction for a writer is in the writing itself. Writing is my passion and passion is our consolation for mortality. Real success is finding something you love and doing the hell out of it.
The monument outside the graveyard in Simla reads, “They are young and old. No question, no answer, all silent.” What does this mean to you? Did you write it, or is it a traditional quote?
I’d like to say I wrote it because it sounds so mysterious and profound, but I didn’t. It is engraved in stone at the entrance to a graveyard in India. I think it means that although there are many people buried there, they will not be answering any questions about mortality.
We like to think that loved ones who have died are still alive somewhere, somehow, in some sense, and maybe they are; I don’t know. There are plenty of people who claim to talk to the dead and plenty more who will pay them to contact a lost loved one. People see ghosts, they hear things that go bump in the night, and they spin epic scenarios around unexplained phenomena. We do this partly because some things really are bizarre and unexplainable, and partly because it feels better than the unacceptable idea that this is all there is. Maybe there is more, but we don’t know what it is, and no one in the graveyard is talking.
We also have this odd idea that people get smarter after they die, that they suddenly understand the mysteries of life and the universe. But if that were true, wouldn’t some dead person have come forward by now? I’m not talking rattling chains or transparent apparitions or cold rooms. I mean if they’re out there, wherever there is, and they want to tell us something important—presuming they can—then why not just do it without all the hocus-pocus?
Personally, I think communication with the dead is wishful thinking, and I believe that’s what the engraving means—come and pay your respects, but you’re not going to learn anything here except what might occur to you as you contemplate your own mortality.
Felicity tells Adela, “In India, one can be full of life at noon & buried before dinner. If I must choose between joy & caution, I choose joy.” (p. 135) Would you say your approach to life is similar to Felicity’s?
Absolutely. My mother died when I was twenty and she was fourty-four. I remember her talking about all the things she was going to do after her daughters grew up and left home, but she died the day my sister graduated from high school. My mother put off much of her own life for my sister and me and, while that is truly industrial-strength motherhood, it made her unexpected and early death even sadder. It also made mortality very real for me. Living in the moment suddenly seemed extremely practical.
But the seeds of that attitude were probably already in my personality. When I was a child, my good and dutiful mother loved to tell me the story of the grasshopper and the ant. Obviously, I was meant to admire and emulate the industrious ant, especially after the ant gets fed up with helping him and the fun-loving grasshopper dies because of his own profligate recklessness. Dumb bug.
The ant died, too, didn’t it? I mean, eventually. So the grasshopper had all the fun, the ant did all the work, and the ant lived a little longer (if you call that living). But in the end they both died because that’s what happens. I never told my mother, but I liked the grasshopper better than the ant.
My father lived to be ninety-one and he made use of every minute. He, too, was dutiful and industrious, but he didn’t put off anything for anyone. Somehow, he managed to be both grasshopper and ant. Working or playing, living and loving, he gave everything 150 percent. After Dad died, even in our grief, there was a sense of celebration for a life so well lived.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so I do think it’s best to make the most of today. Abe Lincoln said, “It’s not the years in your life that matter, it’s the life in your years.” Or in contemporary parlance: “Life is uncertain; eat dessert first.”
What can we expect to see from you next?
Amazonia. Not the cyber-superstore but the vast, mysterious jungle in Brazil where there are still uncharted places and tribes yet to be contacted by the modern world.
The story centers around a handful of indigenous people, circa 1900, forced to flee their home forest because of an influx of loggers and rubber tappers. On their search for a safe haven they encounter hostile tribes, zealous missionaries, and ruthless loggers known as “intruders.”
The story is narrated in the first person by the Forest, similar to the way in which The Book Thief was narrated by Death.
The working title is The Cloud Forest.