A Conversation with Roberta Rich, Author of 'The Midwife of Venice'
Shalom Life has a conversation with the author of the acclaimed, The Midwife of Venice.
Shalom Life was able to have a conversation with Roberta Rich, regarding her superb historical novel.
What first got you interested in writing about 16th Century Venetian Jewish midwife?
In 2007 my husband and I were on a walking tour of Venice. We visited the Ghetto Nuevo, the original ghetto founded in 1516 by the Council of Ten, the city’s ruling body. I was transfixed by the campo, the open square, and the knife-shaped buildings surrounding it.
How did you develop the character of Hannah? Likewise, what about her husband Isaac?
I started thinking about my characters and a plot almost immediately upon visiting the ghetto. Within a few weeks I had a pretty good sense of the characters and how I want the plot to progress. The ideas for Hannah and Isaac came purely from my imagination.
I wanted Hannah to be the best midwife in Venice, Christian or Jewish, not only because she was a kind and competent person but because she was resourceful and had invented a rudimentary form of forceps. The idea came to her during a Shabbat dinner when she was ladling beet soup from a tureen into bowls. She dropped the ladle and in fishing it out of the tureen with an identical spoon came up with the idea for her forceps. The next day, she went to the silversmith with a sketch in hand and had him make them.
The character of the Rabbi arose from an autobiography I had the good fortune to read by Leon Modena.
This month you have various promotional events for The Midwife of Venice in Toronto, Montreal, and Buffalo. Are you in the “like” or “dislike” camp, regarding book tours?
The Midwife of Venice has been out a year in Canada and a few months in the States. So I am now thoroughly in touch with my ‘inner ham’. It turns out I love public speaking as long as the audience is good and has lots of questions.
Your next novel continues Hannah’s tale, and is set in Constantinople. Can you give a sneak peak regarding the material?
I am very excited about my current novel, tentatively entitled In the Eye of the Sultan. It is a sequel to The Midwife of Venice. My Venetian characters, Hannah and Isaac are living happily in Constantinople (Istanbul) running a successful silk workshop when Isaac’s sister-in-law arrives and shatters their lives in an unexpected way.
I enjoy doing research and this project is giving me an opportunity to read about the Ottoman Empire, to visit Istanbul, and, in particular the old Jewish quarters of Galata and Fener Balat and Kuzgankuk. It also gave me the excuse to write to the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul to ask permission to visit the Ahrida shul, an old Sephardic synagogue in Balat. This shul has the remarkable distinction of having a tevah in the shape of a ship’s prow. These days there are few Jews left in Istanbul. Most emigrated to Israel many years ago. But the city has a number of Jewish heritage sites.
You were a divorce lawyer for 25 years. What brought about the transition to author?
I started my own family law practice in 1976 with a law school friend of mine who is now a judge. We practiced in downtown Vancouver two blocks from the courthouse. I enjoyed practicing family law, particularly litigation. I sold my practice in December 1999.
Practicing law taught me nothing about good writing, although a few judges did comment that some of my legal briefs sounded more like novels than legal arguments. It did, however, teach me a lot about treachery, revenge and the intricate workings of the human heart.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I am generally at the computer by about 9:00 am and write till lunchtime. Take a break for an hour and then write until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. Lucky for me, I am a gregarious hermit. I love the solitariness of the writing life, but I also love the promotion side of things.
This is my routine in Colima, Mexico where I spent the winter. After breakfast, and those of you who remember the movie, ‘Fargo’ will recall the line from Marg’s husband, ‘You need a good breakfast, Marge.’ I get dressed, kiss my husband good-bye and walk 30 feet to my study. I work as long as I can, or until the iguanas pesters me too much with their scaly little feet on the roof tiles. Usually a good 4-5 hours. Which doesn’t seem a whole lot. I am not a fast writer. For me, 500 -1000 words is a good day. But the pages add up. It’s like what your mom use to tell you about saving money, a dollar a week isn’t much, but at the end of the year you will have $52, plus interest.