I first “met” Nomi Eve thanks to the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). Her latest novel, HENNA HOUSE, was one of our Great Group Reads candidates. With its elegant prose, meticulous research, and fascinating glimpse into a little-known world, it was so well-loved that it became one of our 2015 selections. As one of her many fans, I contacted Nomi and she was kind enough to grant an interview for this blog.
Specializing in historic fiction, Nomi’s first book, THE FAMILY ORCHARD, is a unique multi-generational saga based on her own family’s history. It was a Book-of-the-Month club Main Selection, and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. It also received starred reviews from both Kirkus (“Lyrically overpowering”) and Publishers Weekly (“…sensual, spiritual, and humorous…”). One of my favorite lines is, “When he spoke he waved his hands wildly as if he had extra vowels in his fingers and verbs in his fists.” Another favorite, which – perhaps – is the heart of this book, is “…what is family but a living hall of a loved one’s many faces?”
HENNA HOUSE begins in 1920 Yemen, and features an unforgettable heroine and the tremendous role the art of henna comes to play in her life. In addition to being a GGR selection, it was also selected as the One Book One Community Selection for the Philadelphia Jewish Community Read program, and is rated 4 ½ stars on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. One of my favorite lines is, “Without henna, I wouldn’t know how to read myself.” Another is, “I wondered what it would feel like to speak a weapon, and to forge a word.”
One of Nomi’s goals was to reach 100 book clubs; she has already surpassed that with 139! Her new goal is to have 100 Skype visits (she’s already at 69). If you’re interested in Skyping with Nomi, you can sign up at her website: http://nomi-eve.com/
And now it’s time to let Nomi speak for herself.
- It looks like the first two stories/chapters were published separately; had you always envisioned them as part of a larger novel?
Yes, I always envisioned those chapters (and all the chapters) to be part of one unified narrative. But because each generation in The Family Orchard is treated separately, those early chapters were easy to excerpt for publication in literary magazines.
- How much of this book, these stories, are true? Are you father’s recollections 100% based on fact, and yours mostly fiction?
I tell people that at the beginning of The Family Orchard that the “My Father Writes” passages are taken almost word for word from my father’s actual notebooks. And in the beginning the “I write” passages are completely “fictional” or imagined. But somewhere towards the middle of the book this flips, and truth comes to reside in my voice, while my father’ voice embroiders and covers over the essential facts of the family narrative.
That is so interesting! Did you expect this to happen, or were you surprised? And why do you think it did?
What I was interested in as a writer was the following: How do we know who we are, where does truth reside in family stories? And how do you form an identity when family history isn’t what it seems to be. The structure of The Family Orchard represents how we figure out who we are – we inherit stories from our parents and grandparents. But the stories inevitably have holes in them – holes left intentionally or by accident of memory. The process of growing up is a process of fashioning our own narratives as a way of filling in the holes and coming to terms with all that has been left out.
I guess that’s something we all do, one way or another – even if we don’t write a book about it.
- Did you draw more from research of your own imagination?
Both. I can’t write without researching and I can’t research without imagining.
I love the way you phrased this, Nomi.
- The co-writing with your father is so unique, how did it come to be? Had you planned to collaborate with him all along?
No, I never planned to write this book in this particular way. But I did plan on writing a book that wrested with our family history. As a young novelist I think that I felt both blessed and burdened by my father’s family tree-notebooks. One day I just opened one up and copied out some words. Then I found myself writing “I write…” and this novel was born.
Okay, this just begs for more explanation! When did you first learn of your father’s family tree-notebooks? When did he first begin writing them? How many were there? How much did you draw from them in writing your novel? Do you think your father ever envisioned them being used in such a public way? What was his reaction when you first discussed it with him?
I grew up with the notebooks. They, and the family tree map, were his passion. He was always working on them. They were an essential fact of my growing up. I drew from them tremendously. Whole passages I took right out of them. And in other cases I assimilated information and imagined the lives of the people he had researched. No, my father never envisioned what I was going to do. He was incredibly gracious and gave me leave to do whatever I needed to do with his work.
There’s no denying you put them to great use.
- Did you consult with him as, or after, you wrote each section? Did he ever ask you to add, delete, or change anything?
No, I never consulted with my father to ask permission for anything. But I did consult with him for help in my own research. My father gave me the greatest gift. He didn’t judge and he didn’t ask me to delete anything. He gave me his blessing to confront our family history on my own very public terms. I will be forever grateful to him for this.
It is an incredible gift. And now you have shared this gift with your own children, as well as your readers. Thank you so much.
- Have you ever thought of writing a companion book around your mother’s family tree?
No, but maybe now that you’ve suggested it, I’ll have to go and do that!
I hope you do; I would love to read it!
- Is your family name really “Sefer,” which would be very appropriate considering it’s Hebrew for “book”!
No, it isn’t. But I did choose that name on purpose J
- What is the distinction between “I write” and “I tell”?
The “I write” sections are fictional 3rd person constructs. The “I tell” passages are first person memoir-style touchstones that trace my own struggles with the journey of writing this book.
- One your heroines, Miriam, is an excellent seamstress who weaves stories into cloth. This reminded me of the use of henna in HENNA HOUSE – coincidence?
No coincidence! I’m really interested in women’s traditional arts and crafts and realms of household expertise. I’m really interested in women’s gathering rituals. Both henna and sewing/embroidery fit that bill and inspire me as a writer. Miriam is based in my grandmother Rivka who was rarely without a crochet needle or embroidery needle in her hands.
- What inspired you to write this story?
I was inspired to write Henna House by my love for a close relative. A Yemenite Jewish woman named Ahoova. I’m named for Ahoova’s late husband and we have always had a special bond.
- Is historic fiction your favorite, both to read and write? If so, could you name some of your favorite works, and writers, of historic fiction? When did you first become interested in it, and what drew you to it?
I’m a very eclectic reader but yes, I do love historic fiction. I certainly love writing it. I think that one of the reasons I gravitate towards historical fiction in my work is that I love to learn things as I write. Doing the research that I need to do to write my books keeps me engaged in my own process. I grew up reading Gone with the Wind, Little Women, and other works of a different era (other than the one I was living in.) My list of historical fiction fav’s is quite long, so I’ll just mention a few – The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, The Piano by Jane Campion and the first Outlander book. Okay, Outlander also falls into Fantasy, but I think it fits the bill.
- Why did you choose to tell us the fate of two main characters at the beginning of the novel, rather than let it unfold?
Henna House is a first person narrative. I love reading and writing first person narratives, but I always struggle with beginning them—the reason is that I always want to know “What is the reason for this outrageous act of speech?” Because no one really narrates their life – no one spends 300 or so pages telling you everything that happened to them. So I always feel the need to give my first person narrators a reason why they have decided to do this rather outrageous thing. The dark fate that two of my main character’s meet is that compelling reason for Adela. She needs to let her readers know that their fate is what has set her on this journey of narration.
I think that makes a lot of sense, and is a novel approach (no pun intended).
- What was the most difficult challenge of writing this book?
Getting it published. There is nothing easy about getting a book published. I’m so grateful to Scribner for taking my book out of manuscript pages and binding it between covers.
- What was the most satisfying part?
Seeing that beautiful cover image for the first time and then getting the opportunity to meet with readers in my book club visits.
The cover is exquisite.
- Any hint as to what your next book will be?
No, I’m still keeping it close to my chest.
Fair enough. I’m already looking forward to reading it, though! Thanks so much for giving us these glimpses into your creative process, Nomi.