Back to the Beginning: A Conversation with Mitchell James Kaplan About His Novel, Into the Unbounded Night
The past is not solid: fantasy and reminiscence mix together like clouds in the sky.
Writers sometimes take many years, even decades, to write a book. So, I only vaguely remember the first time I heard of Mitchell James Kaplan’s recently published novel, Into the Unbounded Night, about the first century’s scrappy beginnings of Christianity and Post-Second Temple Judaism. We were good friends, and it was the middle of the night when he posted on Facebook that he was writing, through sleepless hours, early versions of the novel’s scenes.
Into the Unbounded Night was even then evolving into an intense story—both historical and mystical—of conflicting emperors, slaves, priests, and exiles in a first century world whose roots and traditions were being increasingly torn apart by the brutal rule of Rome.
I read the novel in draft, and then again in revision, and now for the third time in the beautiful print edition. As Christians, we wonder time and again “What was the world like back then when the very tiny thing that was to become our practiced faith was rumor, scraps of papyrus passed from hand to hand, ever in danger of being snuffed out by the powerful Roman Empire?” In this novel, the vile slums of Rome burn, the Jerusalem Temple is torn down and two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, rise or find new form on the power of love alone which is greater than them all.
Mitchell and I met many times over the last ten years while he was writing Into the Unbounded Night. We met at parties and in restaurants and at conferences where he often spoke of it. As writers do, we shared many a glass of wine or mug of hot coffee in some corner table of some city restaurant, discussing our work. As I believe each story is in search of its perfect writer, so I think this one came to him.
Writers emerge from every sort of background. Years ago, Mitchell wrote film scripts for a living. Now, he has a day job traveling the world, visiting industrial facilities, and writing reports about them. He has spent months in places like Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Vienna. He is, he says, “fascinated with the different narratives of religious, social, and national groups,” and tends to get involved in long conversations with people everywhere. “The people I meet seem just as eager as I am to exchange such thoughts.” (For this novel, he travelled to Rome, Ephesus, and Jerusalem, as well as to several Roman sites in the United Kingdom.)
Because we sadly can’t meet for wine or coffee these difficult days, and we live far apart, I wrote him an email and asked him whether he would let me interview him for The Episcopal New Yorker. I also asked him, as more book clubs from churches and synagogues are discussing his book, if he would be willing to appear at book clubs in this diocese by Zoom or other platform. (He would be delighted. This information is at the end of the article. He is an affable and fascinating speaker with huge research about a period most of us long to know more about.)
I typed my first question. “How did you choose to write this novel? All of us have so many ideas about things we’d like to write about, but a novel is a real commitment.”
His answer arrived in my inbox. “It grew out of my fascination with the period. My ‘process’ initially involves reading relevant literature, visiting places, looking at paintings, and feeding my curiosity any other way I can. This all happens well before I start writing the novel, or even thinking about it. At a certain point, your characters start to come alive in your imagination. You sense that their stories need to be told. The first character of Into the Unbounded Night to come alive was a pagan woman who was caring for her disabled child on the streets of first century Rome. The story unfolded backward and forward from there.”
He added, “One of the early realizations that helped determine the geographical scope of Into the Unbounded Night came to me when I was reading a life of Vespasian. He began his military career during the Roman conquest of Britannia in 43 AD and concluded his military career (prior to becoming emperor) with the war in Jerusalem. Another such moment came when I visited the carcer in Rome and realized that the Great Fire of Rome must have broken out while St. Paul was imprisoned there. I found myself thinking about how he must have felt in that place, reflecting upon his early life in Tarsus, his travels to Jerusalem and Rome, and the beliefs he had developed along the way.”
But novelists discuss how we work all the time, and wandering in a huge bookshop in some city where we were both speaking at a conference a few years ago when the book was still a draft, I asked him, “How did your novel evolve? I know it started with one sentence, one idea and maybe one character. Many people think authors simply write from beginning to end, but I don’t find that. Can you remember back to the beginnings of yours?”
He said, “For me, at first, it’s like painting a landscape as the fog slowly lifts (over a period of years). You see the sparkle of a river here, and maybe a copse of elms over there. Then you realize that the road winds westward toward a little town on the horizon. The lighting shifts. Often, I’ll discover something in one part of the picture that causes me to adjust something in a different part. Sometimes there are pieces that must belong somewhere, but I have no idea where. But eventually everything fits together in ways that are astonishing even to the writer.”
Now, in emails, he explained what he meant more fully. “That said, when you’ve absorbed everything you can find about historical characters, you do have a sense of the contours of their personalities—their sense of what’s important and what isn’t, of what’s right and what’s wrong. You can’t, for example, familiarize yourself with the thinking of a person like Saint Paul and not come away with the impression that he cares deeply about sin and redemption; or with the life of Vespasian, and not realize he cared about law and order. You can’t read in the Talmud about Yohanan ben Zakai and not realize he cared deeply about the Hebrew literary tradition, and that he opposed the ideological positions of the Zealots. So to a large extent, the historical record shapes these characters before you put pen to paper.”
I was fascinated by his sense of place which is so real. I always think of Rome in its marble splendor, but his characters try to find safety in the grittiest, filthiest parts. I asked Mitchell how this affected the writing of Into the Unbounded Night. He said, “Sometimes, as you know, the ‘historical record’ can be deceptive, because (for example) it emphasizes the conditions of the literate (i.e., wealthy) classes—that is, of the people who knew how to write and read. In ancient Rome, most residents were practically destitute. Poor citizens were provided by the state with enough millet for sustenance, but the vast numbers of poor residents who were not citizens did not even have that much, and had to depend upon black markets, thievery, prostitution, smuggling, etc.”
One of the things I love most about the novel is how Mitchell often writes of people seen from the corner of the eye, as when someone mentions “that fellow who overturned the tables of the money lenders in the Temple a while back.” There are no great drums. We meet Paulus in a prison. It is strange to think of the central ideas of our faiths in a cauldron of formation. “Right and wrong matter more than mortal power.” But Mitchell is interested in “the shadow areas of the chiaroscuro painting known as history. What is going on over there, in that dark corner, and how does it affect what I see in the foreground—or how I see it?”
He told me, “Into the Unbounded Night starts with the premise that our holy books are distilled from a vast, variegated, and complex literary tradition that blends history, storytelling, law, poetry, and other forms and even includes within itself various revisions of itself. One thing that became clear to me as I researched and wrote Into the Unbounded Night was that Christianity and Post-Second Temple Judaism are sibling survivors of a much larger culture, most of which the Romans succeeded in destroying. Eventually, Christianity and Post-Second Temple Judaism evolved into different faiths, even redefining themselves against each other at times.“
Another thing which fascinates me about the novel is that creatures of the spirit move as vividly as humans. The Messenger Azazel, his goat, and the strange, deformed child Faolan (Little Wolf) move between enfleshed characters and spirits. I asked him about that, and he said, “I wanted to recreate worlds as they were perceived by those characters, at that time. The ways humans related to animals and spirits were different back then.”
Into the Unbounded Night is not Mitchell’s only novel. His first, By Fire By Water, dealt with 15th century Spain, amid the Inquisition, especially portraying the hidden Jews who were always in danger. His next one, Rhapsody, is about Kay Swift and her 1920s Broadway circle, including her lover George Gershwin. It will debut in spring 2021.
Once, when we walked together down the halls of a writers’ conference in a large hotel, Mitchell told me, “I don’t know where novels come from, except that they grow out of my fascination with a particular segment of human experience. First comes that fascination. It almost feels like it grows around you, like a garden, until you feel you are dwelling in that world. Then comes the novel. I don’t know whether it will always happen that way. But that is how my first three novels came about.”
Into the Unbounded Night reminded me of part of the United States today, where we are increasingly divided between the wealthy and the impoverished. I wrote to ask him, “Do you think we can write without feelings of our own era leaning against our shoulders?” He replied, “I think part of the purpose of the historical novel is to provide context for the present. I’m not claiming that such context has practical value, but I do believe it has experiential value, so to speak. And experience is what life is about.”
This time of social isolation is the very best time for book clubs where friends, minds, ideas, and engrossing books can meet in perfect safety. If you don’t belong to one, ask a few friends and get on Zoom or Google Meets. It is a great way to be with others. And as I said, Mitchell is available to speak to your club. You can have the delightful author in your living room. Please contact him at [email protected] about setting up a time. And maybe when post-pandemic times arrive, as they surely will, he can come to New York and speak to a whole gathering of us.
Into the Unbounded Night can be ordered on Kindle or in print from Amazon.com or from any indie bookshop.