Eloise Keating interviews Leslie Cannold on her novel that imagines the life of Jesus’ youngest sister Rachael.
Why did you decide to approach this topic as a work of fiction?
I decided because I had no choice! My first impulse was to make use of my skills and experience as an academic researcher and nonfiction author to write a non-fictional account. But it turns out there are few historical facts to be had about the people and events described in the holy books. Those that exist are not necessarily what we would call history, including the bible, which is a religious—not a historical—text. Despite this, the dearth of factual, historical information about the man called Joshua of Nazareth and other figures named in the gospels means it can’t be entirely rejected as a source. There was also very little about what daily life was like for a Jewish peasant woman and virtually nothing by women (most of whom would have been illiterate) about their own lives. Nothing is known about Jesus’ sisters, including whether he even had any, and their names. If I wanted to tell the story of Joshua’s sisters, the medium of fiction was the only real option.
How did you reconcile publicly accepted ideas about Jesus and his family on one hand with your desire to imagine the story of Rachael on the other?
I may be the most perfect person in the world to have written this story because I knew next to nothing about Jesus the religious figure when I started. I was raised in a culturally Jewish, Areligious family. While being encouraged to be curious about most things, any questions I posed about the blue-robed guy hanging on a cross, or Christianity in general, were met with a shrug and ‘I don’t know’, and the implicit question, why would you care?’ So when I came to read the gospels, I read them straight, just the way you’d read any story. I had no preconceived ideas about what would be there, and no blocks about what conclusions I could or couldn’t draw from the stories told. It was only later, when I began describing the plot of my book, or the motives of characters, I would see the eyes of those who did know something about Christianity widen. ‘You can’t say that!’ one woman said. ‘Why not?’ I remember feeling perplexed. ‘It’s pretty clear that was what happened. It actually says it.’ ‘Maybe. I … don’t know,’ she shook her head as if this was
irrelevant. ‘But you can’t say it.’ Eventually, I just accepted that The Book of Rachael was likely to surprise and perhaps offend some folk. Readers will just have to judge for themselves if the reinterpretation of familiar characters and stories will be too much for them and—if the answer is yes—buy something else.
Not much is known about women’s lives during the time when the novel is set. What kind of research was involved in writing this book?
I relied on a few texts, none of which even came close to fulfilling my every need to know what foods women prepared and how, what they slept on and under, what they wore and how these things altered with age, seasons and social status. Where I couldn’t fill the gaps, I referred to other historical novels or made things up! The bible is not a historical document. There is considerable debate about which, if any, of the events described in it actually happened and if so, when and in what order. At every point at which there was a conflict between my best surmise as to what actually happened and the storytelling imperatives of the novel, the novel won.
Were you influenced by contemporary feminism in developing the character of Rachael?
Only insofar as contemporary (and historical) feminism embodies women’s desires to be treated as fully human. Ultimately, to write a novel that would speak to modern readers I had to assume that the things that motivate contemporary human beings are not all that different to what motivated the ancients. Once our essential requirements for food, shelter and security have been met, I see men and women as seekers of a sense of belonging, recognition, affirmation, intimacy and the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves. Rachael is a very full-blooded character. Grounded, as most women are, in the day-to-day work of feeding bodies and cleaning up mess, but yearning to satisfy the higher order thirsts that may be peculiar to homo sapiens.
As your first foray into fiction, how did you find the process of writing a novel? Can we expect to see more fiction from you in the future?
I found it very, very challenging. Very challenging. Did I mention I found it challenging? But, hey, I’m always one for a challenge so yes, there are plans for another fictional work. I’m sorta hoping that I’ve learned something so the next one won’t be so … challenging but my editor’s response to this aspiration was, essentially, ‘good luck with that’.
The Book of Rachael is published this month by Text. Eloise Keating reviewed the novel in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, now available online here.