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Thursday, July 22, 2010

One Question Interview with Mitchell James Kaplan author of By Fire, By Water

Yes, you read that correctly, one question was all Mitchell and I needed.  Once you read his response I think you will agree.  So, please give a warm welcome to Mitchell, the author of By Fire, By Water published earlier this year.

Growing up you were an avid reader and visited many medieval European places of interest. Are there any specific books or places that influenced you more than the others? Do you have any favorites? Why or why not?

So many of my most powerful memories are tied to my experience of books (and music) in various places. My parents separated during the year prior to my first year of high school. Their separation was the first phase of a long and bitter divorce. My mother took me and my sister to Europe as a way of getting away. She was emotionally fragile at the time, and I ended up traveling without her, for the most part with a friend who lived in London. At one point, we found ourselves in Leningrad – that is, in Soviet Russia – with my friend’s parents. The hotel was designed just for American tourists and was quite luxurious. My friend and I had a room together. We were both reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This was before the movie came out. Unlike the movie (which I hate), the book is narrated by the withdrawn, paranoid Chief Bromden, whose mind provides a filter through which we learn about the hierarchies of authority in the mental institution where he dwells, the mechanisms of mind control he perceives there and elsewhere, and Randle McMurphy’s heroic but doomed challenge to the system.

When I was in my teens and twenties, my mother lived in Munich, Germany, where she taught at a local university. My father lived in Los Angeles. I remember reading “Crime and Punishment” on the plane from LA to Munich. I believe it was te first time I ever visited her in that city. Despite my curiosity and her plans, I remember arriving at my mother’s apartment and telling her I wanted to finish the book before doing anything else. I stayed up all that night reading about the tortured and desperate Raskolnikov, his ideological confusion and haunting guilt.

Another powerful memory takes me back to high school. I attended the Cate School, a tiny boarding school in the hills south of Santa Barbara. I used to sit reading in the library – assigned books by Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, and many others – but also many books of my own choosing. Like so many high school kids at the time, I became obsessed with Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Kafka. I remember reading “Doctor Faustus,” “Steppenwolf,” and “The Trial” there, becoming so engrossed that I skipped meals and classes and delayed homework.

These are all vivid, happy memories. At the same time, you have probably noticed that the books I most loved dealt with wretched, tortured individuals confronted with a world that made no sense. Boy, did I relate to those characters.

A couple of other memories, from a little later. After I graduated from college, I went to live in France. I had studied French for only two years and although I could get by, I wanted to master not only the spoken language, but also the literature. I spent a huge portion of my limited funds on the beautiful three-volume Pleiades edition of Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu” and set about plowing through it, utterly entranced by the sound of the words. I copied lengthy portions into my notebooks and took up long-term residence in the world of Swann, Odette de Crécy, Monsieur de Charlus, and the Guermantes.

Later, I taught myself Spanish by reading Cervantes and others.

One final memory that combines travel with the arts. This one is not about a book, but about an experience of music. Back in the 1970s, my mother used to take me to the opera in Munich. One evening we attended a production of Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aaron.” It was incredibly intense. We were all on the edges of our seats from the beginning to the end. You can’t listen to this kind of music on a CD, but live it can be overwhelming. Afterward, the audience rose and gave the performers the longest standing ovation I have ever witnessed. I looked around. These were mostly men and women with grey hair, many of them in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. It occurred to me: These are the very people who labeled Schoenberg’s music “degenerate,” caused him to lose his position at the Prussian Academy in Berlin, and chased him to Paris and then to Los Angeles. Now they appear to be in love with him and his music. Indeed, they pay more attention to it than audiences in the United States. I wondered: What does this tell us about the human condition, about how we perceive each other, about how we change, about growth and forgiveness?

I realize I didn’t exactly answer your question about the places I've visited; but my failure to answer is an answer in itself, I think. Yes, I have visited many fascinating and beautiful towns, fortresses, and castles over many years: Neuschwanstein, the Alhambra, Jerusalem, Kyoto... But the worlds I have occupied as a reader and as a patron of the arts have been just as real, memorable, and enriching as anything I have experienced in so-called "reality.”

About By Fire, By Water:

Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and longtime friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend’s demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands. But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. Feeding his curiosity about his past is his growing love for Judith Migdal, a clever and beautiful Jewish woman navigating the mounting tensions in Granada. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he’d lost…the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.

Within the dramatic story lies a subtle, insightful examination of the crisis of faith at the heart of the Spanish Inquisition. Irresolvable conflict rages within the conversos in By Fire, By Water, torn between the religion they left behind and the conversion meant to ensure their safety. In this story of love, God, faith, and torture, fifteenth-century Spain comes to dazzling, engrossing life.

For more information about this book and the author please visit his website:

In October, in honor of Columbus Day, I will have a few more questions with Mitchell and a review of his book.


I am an Amazon Associate.


Tales of Whimsy said...

What an awesome question!

Passages to the Past said...

Great post! I am so envious of all the places that Mitchell got to explore while growing up....very cool!

I recently read and really enjoyed his book By Fire, By Water and looking forward to more reads by him in the future!

Thanks for the excellent post you two!

Anonymous said...

A great interviewer needs only one question :)
He's led quite an adventurous life!

BurtonReview said...

LOL.. one of the best interviews ever. Good job. Enjoying learning all about Mitchell these days ;)

Blodeuedd said...

Nice post.
I am very jealous, would love to visit Neuschwanstein it's so beautiful, and the Alhambra really magical.

Teddyree said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the one question interview, and totally agree with Mitchell's comment about the worlds you travel as a reader can be just as memorable and fulfilling as those physically experienced.

I've recently become enamoured with Spanish history I'm looking forward to your review of By Fire, By Water.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, he's led a fascinating life and it sounds like he is one smart cookie!

The Bookworm said...

wonderful post! sounds like he has led an interesting life! By Fire, By Water sounds like a great read. I like the cover.

Jenny Girl said...

Thank you everyone! I agree reading books lets us "travel" to different places. Maybe someday we will get there in person.

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