Saturday, January 25, 2014

Interview with Marie Hammond about The Rabbi of Worms

The Rabbi of Worms.  Marie Hammond.  WIPF and Stock Publishers.  2013, Eugene, OR.  ISBN: 978-1-62564-459-6. $31.  280 pages.

Interview with author Marie Hammond

When did you begin writing? Why?

Rather late. My grandmother saved a story I wrote when I was about seven, as well as letters I wrote to her in my teenage years. Other than letters and the required school assignments, I wrote very little until middle age. It was not enjoyable to me. In fact, one attraction of my college major (math) was that I would not have to write papers. On the other hand, I’ve always loved reading, ever since my fourth grade teacher gave me a copy of The Secret Garden.

In my mid-thirties I found a topic I really wanted to write about, namely energy conservation. For two years I wrote a weekly column in The Durham Sun, giving advice on how to reduce energy consumption in the home, office, and automobile. That was the beginning. I was hooked.

When and why did you begin writing historical novels?

My first historical novel came about because I needed a topic for Judy Hogan’s writing class. At the time I was also taking a class on the book of Jeremiah. The story and the protagonist in the biblical account fascinated me. However, the book is a jumbled mass of history, personal anecdotes, wise sayings, and dire predictions, all very hard to sort out and follow. I thought I would write a more sequential version that readers could digest more easily. The medium I chose was letters that Jeremiah might have written to his uncle in exile. This came easily to me because I was already a letter-writer. I got the idea of doing an epistolary novel from Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March, in which Julius Caesar’s letters tell the story.

Do you plan more books related to biblical subjects or Jewish/Christian history?

Not at the moment. Both my books were inspired by historical figures who were insightful, forceful but not violent, persevering, courageous, and faithful to what they believed. Perhaps as a consequence of these other qualities, they were also good writers. If another such character appears, then who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired.

Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

Writing is the fun part. Finding a publisher is drudgery. I wasted a whole year looking for an agent, thinking this would help me get a big publisher and more publicity. Then I spent another year contacting publishers who expressed interest in historical fiction or Judaica. In the end I went back to the company that published my first book. Their procedure had changed—they now require a formal proposal that lists possible endorsers, similar books on the market, author’s qualifications to write on this subject, and more.
Actually I found writing the proposal to be a useful exercise—it clarified some things in my mind. The delay proved beneficial as well, because I could read the manuscript with fresh eyes and make necessary revisions.

Why did you choose to write about this subject?

The man who is the title character, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (known as Rashi), captured my interest. I first heard of him in the 1990s when my family was visiting relatives in Worms, Germany. Cousin Mieken led us on a tour of the reconstructed Jewish quarter of the city. The old synagogue had been burned down by the Nazis but since then had been rebuilt according to the original plan. Attached to the synagogue is a “Rashi chapel” and behind it a “Rashi museum.” Of course Mieken explained to us who Rashi was. She said he was a rabbi so renowned for his wisdom that people came from all over Europe to ask for his rulings on legal, religious, and social matters. Not only Jews sought his counsel, but Christians, too.

At the time I was working on another project, but I filed away this bit of history in the back of my mind, only returning to it years later. I began by reading several biographies of Rashi, plus articles and books about Jews in medieval Europe and some general histories of that era.

How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.

It’s a good feeling. One wants to see a project that has taken six or seven years of work brought to completion. If people like the book or find it helpful in any way, so much the better.

Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

These are the back cover comments:

“Though this is a marvelous, gripping, well-researched historical novel, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to call M.K. Hammond’s book a ‘historical novel.’  In her narration, the eleventh century Rabbi of Worms speaks with a compelling faithful message that challenges us today. A timely, wonderfully written novel.” –Will Willimon, Duke Divinity School.

“The Rabbi of Worms is historical fiction at its best.  M.K. Hammond has written an engaging story set in accurately depicted late eleventh century Germany.  The characters’ conversations about Christianity and Judaism convey rich details of medieval religious practice that are integral to the characters’ friendships.  The work would be an asset for anyone interested in learning about medieval Europe.”  –Mary Jane Morrow, Duke University.

"Jews and Christians alike will easily identify with the characters living through this turning point in Jewish-Christian relations as the Crusades moved through Europe and renegade elements killed Jews and destroyed their communities in the Rhein valley.  Readers will understand better how the violence a thousand years earlier gave rise to the massacres of Jews in Nazi Germany."  --Judy Hogan, author of Farm Fresh and Fatal.

So far most of the reactions have been favorable. However, the sample of readers has not been random because the book only recently became available to the general public. Up until now it’s been my friends reading it. The best comments so far have been along the lines of “I couldn’t put it down.”

What other books have you published and where, when?

My other book, Balm in Gilead/Writings of Jeremiah, was published in 2007 by Wipf and Stock. It’s an epistolary novel, made up of letters, sermons, and diary entries, describing the life and times of the prophet Jeremiah.

Do you have a work in progress now?

Yes, but not fiction. I am transcribing and translating letters written by my grandparents and other relatives from the 1920s to the 1950s. Most are written in the old German script. The correspondence is sad because my grandmother was dying of tuberculosis and my grandfather could not find a job during the Depression.

Do you belong to any organizations which have been helpful to you as a writer and/or in the journey to publication?

My friends in the Triangle Jewish Chorale and at my church (Epworth UMC) have been very helpful and supportive.

Have you attended conferences which encouraged you to write about the topics you chose? How did that happen?

No. While traveling in Europe, I did visit the Rashi Institute in Troyes, France, and the Rashi Museum in Worms, Germany. At both places I picked up books, articles, maps, guidebooks, postcards—everything I could find about Rashi and the cities where he lived.

What else would you like to say about your books?

While the action in both my books takes place in earlier ages, the themes apply equally well in modern times. My new book, for example, shows the contrast between religious faith that is reasonable and thoughtful and brings good into the world and, on the other hand, fanatical religion that leads to hatred, intolerance, and perhaps violence. Another important theme of the book relates to education: What makes a good teacher? How do people learn most effectively? Why is reading important? Also there is some discussion in the book about fatherhood and what it means. In my observation, human nature has not changed much through all the centuries of recorded history.


Reading and book-signing events:

Thursday, January 30, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham
Sunday, February 9, 2:00-3:00 p.m., Levin Jewish Community Center, 1937 W. Cornwallis Rd., Durham
Wednesday, February 19, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Ponder Auditorium, Croasdaile Village Retirement Community, 2600 Croasdaile Farm Pkwy., Durham


How to purchase the book:

Through or other online distributors
At any of the readings
Locally at the Regulator Bookshop

Publication information:

ISBN 13:978-1-62564-459-6
Publication date: November 14, 2013
Number of pages: 268
Publisher: Resource Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
Place of publication: Eugene, OR


Biographical information:

Former math teacher and newspaper columnist Marie K. Hammond now spends her time writing, teaching Bible studies at church, and singing Jewish music with a community chorale. She also tutors students in math and reading through the Durham Literacy Council. Mother of two grown children and grandmother of four, Hammond remains an avid bicyclist.

1 comment:

  1. Your book sounds fascinating, Marie. Each of the two book clubs I belong to have read books like "The People of the Book" and others that delve into the history of the Jews and they created a lot of discussion. I'll have to order your book.