The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Gail Carson Levine (GCL): This was a trip into family history. My father’s ancestors went first to the kingdom of Naples after the expulsion, which was the destination I gave to my main character, Loma, and her family. Although this is beyond the time frame of my book, Naples proved to be a temporary refuge, and they continued on to Salonica in the Ottoman Empire, probably in the sixteenth century. When my father was born there in 1912, the city was still part of Turkey, although it became Greek a few months later, and his first language was Spanish (or Ladino).
His mother died of childbirth complications after having him. In early childhood, he came to New York City, where his father died not much later. He grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, an Ashkenazi institution, and lost his connection to his roots though he knew about them.
He didn’t talk about himself much and never discussed his childhood, which made me curious. My first historical novel, Dave at Night, imagines his orphanage experience (and also explores the Harlem Renaissance). A Ceiling Made of Eggshells grew out of the same curiosity.
TWM: Can you please describe your research process?
GCL: My research had two aspects. The first was to read and read and read, in order to learn and understand the history–because understanding wasn’t a given. For example, one of the first books I read was The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Haim Beinart. On my first reading I didn’t get it. Most of its many pages are taken up with court cases and financial transactions. I wondered why the narrative was dry and seemingly heartless when so much human tragedy was unfolding. On my second reading much later, I realized that historians of such a distant time have little to go on and the tragedy was revealed in these transactions. As soon as the expulsion was announced, people who owed Jews money stopped paying and people to whom Jews owed money demanded payment. Jews had to liquidate and had to take what they could get. An orchard, for instance, went for the price of a handkerchief.
I read the major histories of the period, most written more than fifty years ago, thick tomes not meant for ignoramuses like me. The learning curve was steep! For understanding, I reached out to living historians and found a mentor, Jane S. Gerber, professor emerita of Sephardic history at the City University of New York, who was kind enough to guide my reading and answer my questions–which usually led me to more reading.
Most of the histories focused on the expulsion and Jewish history and daily life in Spain, but I read a few more general books, too, like a biography of Queen Isabella and a history of slavery in late medieval Iberia, and these widened my perspective.
The second aspect involved my hunt for the kind of detail that brings fiction to life. What was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How were amulets regarded? What importance was given to astrology? What did this town or that one look like back then? How would a bedroom be furnished?
For these, I did a lot of googling. The wharf question, for example, took me to the Ask-A-Historian pages of Reddit, where a kind historian steered me to some paintings of harbors during my period. For information about towns, I consulted Spanish Wikipedia, where the articles were more expansive and had more pictures–I used the translate function, which was good enough. In English Wikipedia, the footnotes and bibliographies led me to sources I might not have found otherwise.
TWM: Why do you think it’s important to tell this particular story?
GCL: The history isn’t well known. I doubt that many readers will know that the Jews were expelled from Spain, and certainly few will know how the expulsion came about–but it was, arguably, the worst catastrophe for European Jews before the Holocaust. Everyone does know about the Spanish Inquisition, and many think that Jews were its target. They weren’t, but they were put in danger by it anyway.
The novel provides a historical lens to look at prejudice in general and antisemitism in particular. Also to consider refugees. Much like refugees today, the Jewish exiles had a choice, but a terrible one: to convert and stay in Spain–to give up their faith and also to become the true focus of the Inquisition–or to remain Jews and face the perils of flight, since many failed to reach safety.
TWM: How long did it take from conception to sale of the manuscript?
GCL: My wonderful editor loved the idea right away. She’s my biggest booster and open to the paths I want to go down, though she doesn’t stint on edits when I turn in a manuscript!
TWM: The narrative is intricately plotted. Do you use any particular tools to help you with the writing process?
GCL: I don’t, and the way I create my plots is messy. I’m what’s known as a “pantser.” That is, I fly by the seat of my pants without an outline. Sometimes I get lost or wander down side lanes for many pages. But for A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, a timeline of events gave me a rough outline, although first I had to figure out where to start. The seeds of the expulsion were sown much earlier. For example, in 1391 anti-Jewish riots resulted in the forced conversion of about 100,000 Jews. (Another 100,000 were killed, and 100,000 managed to flee or hide.) These conversions gave rise to a distinction between “old” and “new” Christians, which eventually led to the Spanish Inquisition. For a while, I toyed with the idea of writing a series of episodes that covered important moments that culminated in the expulsion.
But eventually I decided I could write a more compelling story by sticking to the final years, from 1483, when Tomás de Torquemada became Grand Inquisitor, to 1492, when the expulsion was promulgated. Then I had to find characters and personal conflicts to drape around the important moments.
So, for another example, when Muslim Málaga falls to Christian forces, Loma’s influential grandfather is called there to negotiate a ransom for the Jewish prisoners of war, and he brings her along. She’s pressed by the monarchs’ daughter, Princess Isabella, to convert to Christianity. Loma responds without thinking, causing her grandfather pain–and advancing the plot. She also witnesses Christian cruelty to the prisoners, especially the Muslim ones, which strengthens her resolve to remain a Jew–more plot machinery.
TWM: Is there a sequel in the works?
GCL: Not at this point, but I loved researching and writing this book. I continue to read about Sephardic history, looking for another story I think I can tell.
Meanwhile, I’m working on a retelling for kids of the Trojan War from two points of view: Cassandra, the seer whom no one believes; and Rin, an Amazon girl who goes with her band to the aid of Troy. I’m turning the story from a tragedy into an adventure. Homer may be spinning in his grave!
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book? Your greatest satisfaction?
GCL: The more I read, the more I concluded that the sense of self in the Middle Ages was different from the modern one, that almost anyone in the twenty-first century would act and even think differently from a fifteenth-century person. I knew I couldn’t really create fifteenth-century characters, because the time distance is too great and I would certainly get it wrong. But I wanted my characters, especially Loma and her grandfather, not to feel modern. That was the biggest challenge, the one that most made me long for time travel.
The biggest triumph: In the Middle Ages, gambling was considered a major crime by both Christians and Jews. Since it’s an author’s job to make trouble for her characters, I gave a gambling addiction to one of Loma’s brothers. When he incurs debts of honor I wondered about the consequences. Specifically, I wondered if he could use conversion to Christianity as a one-time get-out-of-jail free card to evade paying. I asked Jane S. Gerber, and she said yes, he could.
Yay! This was confirmation that I was understanding this world. And the gambling debt allowed me to introduce one of the immediate causes of the expulsion, a blood libel case known as the Holy Child of La Guardia, in which several converts and several Jews confessed after torture to killing a Christian boy and conducting rites to destroy all Spain’s Christians. Aside from its outrageousness, the falsity of the accusation is laid bare by two facts: No child was ever declared missing, and no search was ever made for a body. But facts didn’t matter. In November, 1491, the accused were burned in an auto-da-fé, and antisemitic riots broke out across Spain. Only a few months later, the expulsion decree was written, signed, and made public.
TWM: What did you learn by writing this book?
GCL: So much! I’ve mentioned some of it above. Another major discovery, which I understood gradually, is that Spanish Jews were considered, quite literally, the possessions of the monarchs, even though they had freedom of movement and choice of occupation. Their taxes went directly to the monarchs, not to the towns, the nobility, or the Church, and they were more heavily taxed than any other group. An attack on the Jews was also an attack on the monarchy, in that the king and queen suffered economic losses when Jews couldn’t work.
I came to understand the forces that competed in Spain and that caused the monarchs to sway one way and then another: the towns, the nobility, the Church, and the Jews. Laws were passed, then ignored, then promulgated, then ignored. Rights were granted then withdrawn then granted, and so on. Chaos resulted.
And I gained an understanding of the painstaking work of historians of the long-ago. Evidence is incomplete, and understanding is partial at best. I hope my exhilaration is ringing through loud and clear!
For more about Gail Carson Levine, please visit her website.