Q&A with Barbara
1. The Language of Paradise is set in 19th century New England. Why did you decide to place the novel at the heart of the Transcendentalist Movement?
I lived in the Boston area for years and have always been drawn to that potent period in its history, when conventions of thought and belief were upended and so many extraordinary minds lived in close proximity. In the novel, Gideon Birdsall is a loner who doesn’t identify with the Transcendentalists, yet in some ways he embodies their principles. He’s an individualist who obeys Emerson’s injunction to “build … your own world” from the pure idea of paradise in his mind. Unfortunately, like many Utopians, he is willing to sacrifice his loved ones on the altar of his vision.
2. Your short story collection, Little Edens, also tackles themes of religiosity and spirituality. What draws you to writing about these themes?
Although not conventionally religious, I’m fascinated by the power of belief to shape and transform individual lives. Whether it’s a particular faith that drives us, or art, or science, or a vision of perfection that some call Paradise, we’re all peering into the mystery, trying to discern a pattern in the murk. Several stories in Little Edens dealt with Jewish themes and characters, and one drew from Jewish mysticism. The novel explores spirituality from a different perspective. It was an interesting experience for me, as a Jewish writer, to get inside the head of a stern Calvinist clergyman like Reverend Hedge, who loved the Hebrew language but – with the bias of the time – despaired of the Jews. Gideon sees the Hebrew letters as portals to another world; yet, through his friendship with Leander, he comes to realize that two tribes have coexisted in his mind: the Hebrews in the Bible, who are mythical archetypes, larger than life, and the Jews, whom society tells him he cannot know.
3. You describe Gideon as having an intense relationship with words from an early age. Later in his life, words become his pathway to transcendence. Did you experience language this way as a child?
Like many kids who grow up to be writers, I was a dreamer and a passionate reader who lived more vividly through books than in my ordinary small-town life. In the early grades I would sneak books into the schoolroom and read during lessons, to the dismay of my teachers who always complained that I never listened. When I created Gideon, I wanted to enhance this absorption to the point of obsession. It isn’t enough for him to be transported by a story; he wants to go “behind the scrim of print” to actually inhabit that world, and ancient alphabets are one route for him to get there. For a long time I’d wanted to write about someone driven to search for the first language, but until I began doing research for the book, I had no idea that the quest for the primal tongue was a historical one, going back to the Egyptians and Greeks. Somehow, knowing about this long line of seekers gave me courage to persevere with Gideon’s fixation.
4. Your husband is also a writer. Do you ever collaborate?
Stewart is primarily a poet and also directs a busy writers’ center. We give each other feedback on our respective projects, but have never worked together – probably one of the reasons our marriage has lasted so long. We’ve had wonderful discussions about Gideon and Sophy and Leander, who inhabited our lives like flesh-and-blood acquaintances. Even now that the book is done, we still hear Reverend Hedge’s thin, piercing voice, chastising us for indulging in that second glass of wine.
5. Why did you choose to organize the novel in parts, as opposed to a traditional chapter-by-chapter format?
I didn’t plan the novel’s structure in advance; I’ve never worked that way. When I began to write, the present prologue was Chapter 1 and the 19 th-century story was interwoven with a modern narrative. But as the 1830s characters took over, the chapters seemed to fall naturally into sections, each containing the alternating viewpoints of Sophy and Gideon. Overall, the sections trace the evolution of their relationship and Gideon’s growing obsession with creating and inhabiting a new Eden. It wasn’t until I finished writing that I realized there were seven parts, one for each day of the Biblical creation.
6. How do you construct your very complex, yet entirely relatable, characters? Do you base them on people you know?
I start with a few wispy ideas, almost like sense impressions. I write these down in a notebook, and as I muse about them, other details come to me, and soon I can see the person. It’s like adding brushstrokes to a sketch, as Sophy does when she paints her portraits. But the real work of character creation comes when I start to write. Until I place these nascent personalities in a setting and watch them in action, I don’t really know them. It’s the struggle to render them in words, that mysterious alchemy, that brings them to life. I like the freedom of inventing characters – my favorite part of the writing process – and rarely base them on anyone I know. All the characters in the novel are invented except for Reverend Hedge, who has his roots in Jonathan Fisher, a brilliant and eccentric parson who lived in Maine in the early 19 th century, and even Hedge departed from his model to become his own person. I do take ideas from life. Sophy’s dance in the meadow was inspired by the teenage daughter of neighbors, who was glimpsed one summer evening doing a wild, impromptu dance in the rain.
7. The homoeroticism between Leander and Gideon is quite a stark contrast to the religious themes and settings. Is this one of the ‘snakes’ of temptation in their constructed Eden?
I don’t view the attraction between them as serpentine. Gideon’s emotions when Leander embraces him are probably the most pure and natural feelings he has – far less complicated than his feelings for Sophy. But in the repressed culture he lives in, he can’t acknowledge them for what they are. As his bond with Leander deepens, he tells himself, “This is what it means to have a friend.” Leander loves Gideon for his beauty, but defines himself as a ‘pan-lover’ who worships beauty in all its forms. For him, the world is a sensual buffet that he feasts on as he pleases. Sophy feels the heat of his desire, even as she resists him.
8. Was it difficult to balance modern-day feminist attitudes with the conventions of 19th century New England?
When I created Sophy, I thought of the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poems, which I’ve always imagined as rents in the rigid hymn-book meter imposed by custom, apertures to let the air in. Sophy is a free spirit and self-described misfit, but also a parson’s daughter living in a small New England village, subject to the conventions of her time. Her solitary dancing is a way of throwing off that “cumbersome catchall” of feminine propriety and religious instruction that she has learned to call the soul. Her painting is more to her than a genteel hobby; it’s her truest means of expression, and ultimately it becomes her salvation. A couple of readers asked me why Sophy didn’t just leave when her situation with Gideon and Leander turned ominous. Why was she passive for so long? I explained that women of that era typically had scant education, limited means of earning a living, and no power within their marriages or society. There were exceptions – Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody – but they were few. A friend loaned me some early-19 th century books of advice for women – two anonymous and one written by a man – and they are terrifying documents. As a modern woman with the requisite feminist convictions, I wanted Sophy to take the reins of her own life, but I couldn’t impose that liberation on her until the moment was right. I had to take into account her devotion to Gideon, her belief in him, and her long-held sense of him as a superior being. She comes from a culture of serving others, and when she plots an escape, it’s not only to save herself but for the well-being of her son.
9. Sophy thinks ‘clothes are the scandal.’ Do you think the effect of clothes has changed in the time between our world and Sophy’s?
It’s a truism to say that modern clothing reveals so much that little is left to the imagination. The garments of Sophy’s time concealed a woman’s body and also distorted it; yet, for a fiction writer, they have tremendous erotic potential. There is an innate tension between the rawness of desire and the appearance of respectability; between the stiffness of the clothes and the soft flesh that they compress. To the lovers of that era, exposing what was hidden was a revelation. When, as a young seminarian, Gideon watches Sophy dance, the sight of her ankle chastely clad in a stocking and the “half-moon of white” rising out of her neckline transports him. But later that day, fantasizing about lifting her nightgown on their wedding night, he finds that “her intimate particulars will not come clear.” It’s as if his imagination censors itself. Though Sophy is too shy to say the word ‘naked’ in Gideon’s presence, she is alive in her body in a way that he is not. It’s she who seduces him in the study, appearing before him like an apparition of Eve and marveling at how natural it feels to be without clothes. Leander sees this sensual side of her immediately; she is earth while Gideon is air. Later, trying to rekindle Gideon’s desire for Sophy for his own purposes, Leander entices him to imagine loosening the laces of her corset, and conjures “the marks of the boned stays … still imprinted on her delicate ribcage,” her “two dear little birds” flying free.