A Highly Unlikely Scenario
1. Jewish mysticism plays a large part in A Highly Unlikely Scenario, from the characters of Isaac and Abulafia to the clapping song to the idea of ibburs and gilguls. Where does your interest in mysticism come from, and how have you pursued it?
Every year for about ten years I went on a meditation retreat led by some very interesting rabbis, who’d studied the meditative traditions not only of Judaism but of several strands of Buddhism. They talked about a lot of Jewish mystical ideas, which I then read more about on my own. In particular, they introduced us to some of Abulafia’s mystical practices, which involve combining Hebrew letters with vowels in particular patterns. These are concentration practices, but also practices of the body, as you breathe in and out with the letters. We learned that these were powerful practices, not to be engaged in lightly or shared willy-nilly with others. It was, in fact, one of these rabbis who inspired A Highly Unlikely Scenario by talking one evening (offhandedly?) about the incredible proliferation of mystical thinking in the thirteenth century, which is when Abulafia lived.
Isaac the Blind was also a denizen of the thirteenth century; he lived in Narbonne a few decades before Abulafia. I learned about him when I was applying for a residency in southern France. I had this book in mind but felt I had to have a Provençal setting in order to get the fellowship. To write my residency proposal, I did an enormous amount of research (it would have been a grand residency!), and learned about Isaac and his disciples Ezra and Azriel; more important, I learned how Isaac could see into souls and maybe be in more than one place at a time, and also about how curmudgeonly he could be when folks shared mystical secrets with the uninitiated. I suddenly saw him as a mystical enforcer acting through time, called upon again and again to save the world. I didn’t get the residency, but I did get myself a terrific character!
But Jewish mysticism is filled with wonderful ideas—I don’t think I’m done exploring them in fiction.
2. Another of your interests appears to be the history of science, including figures like Roger Bacon. Is there something about the omnivorous intellectual curiosity of people like Bacon, who studied optics, astronomy, mathematics, and possibly flying machines (not to mention philosophy and theology), that appeals to you?
There’s something compelling about thinkers—I won’t call them Renaissance figures because Roger Bacon was definitely a medieval man—who are interested in everything, who see the connections in everything (a mystical outlook, maybe, even if he wasn’t a mystic). Roger Bacon is one of those early scientific figures who doesn’t see neat separations between the material, the spiritual, the intellectual, who finds explanations offered by alchemy or theology just as compelling as those offered by optics or engineering.
I got to Roger Bacon through my obsession with the as-yet-unread, probably unreadable Voynich Manuscript, which I learned about from my alumni magazine, of all places (it is a real manuscript; it resides in Yale’s Beinecke Library). Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century scholar of all the disciplines you cite, was believed by some to be the “author” of this manuscript (which was considered by others to be a sacred Cathar text). Why would Bacon create such a thing, a coded manuscript that no one has ever decoded? He wrote numerous theological and other works, never feeling the obligation to hide his thoughts in mysterious script.
The history of those books is also intriguing: though a scientist, he became a Franciscan friar at a certain point, possibly hoping to then get a teaching job, but his superiors prohibited him from publishing anything! The books mentioned in A Highly Unlikely Scenario were in fact published, but only because of the eventual (and secret) intervention of Pope Clement IV (something Leonard warns him about). Bacon also had a few “missing” years, as I mention in the book, during which time some speculate that he studied Hebrew. Quite famously, he’d constructed a head made of brass (a brazen head) that was meant to serve as oracle. (Sally’s statement that Bacon never quite got the Head to talk wasn’t exactly accurate: apparently it spoke one night saying, “Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time’s past,” before self-destructing; Bacon was sleeping at the time and missed it.) Who wouldn’t want to write about such a figure!
3. The world of the novel is meticulously detailed, from the food, clothes, and hairstyles to things like the Hello! lamps on Everything’s-Okay poles. Did you have this particular setting in mind, or did you invent aspects of it as you went along?
Everything about the book’s invented setting evolved with the book; coming up with these details was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Nothing is more fun than starting a sentence not knowing how it will end. While some aspects of the book had to be more controlled, even in the first draft—the cosmology, the three-part structure, the movement of Leonard out of his White Room, into his hometown, and eventually into history—most of the details could be invented spontaneously. The Scottish dishes prepared by Carol’s restaurant, however, are all real, and none is probably bite-sized!
4. You spent some of your childhood in Rome; did you draw on those memories when you were portraying medieval Rome in the book? What’s your favorite place to visit in Rome?
A lot of the Roman setting did come from memory—the itinerary Sally and Leonard follow, most notably, from an unnamed neighborhood to the river, across the bridge, past the Castel Sant’Angelo, to the old St. Peter’s, down the river, past the island to the Portico of Octavia (the fish market), and on to the Theater of Marcellus. I remember taking a school trip to the Portico of Octavia when I was maybe fourteen; I loved that this ruin of a once grand Roman building had become a place of low commerce. I remembered this odd fact for decades! I’ve been similarly fascinated with the Roman Theater of Marcellus, which like the portico and so much of ancient Rome was repurposed in the Middle Ages, first as a fortress and then, in its upper levels, as a dwelling. I wanted so much to see what’s inside!
But there’s not a lot left in Rome that’s medieval, apart from some churches, so I also spent a lot of time looking over old maps, and reading books about the medieval city—its pilgrims, architecture, daily life, weapons, Inquisition, Jewish population, and so on. The St. Peter’s in the book, for example, is the old St. Peter’s, which was demolished to make room for the current basilica, of Michelangelo fame. All of the details about that old church, then, I found through research. I similarly had no idea that there had been grain mills on the Tiber or that in the Middle Ages, there were kilns dedicated to transforming Roman marble (one shudders to think it!) into quicklime.
My favorite Roman places did not make it into the book, however: the multi-leveled San Clemente church, for example: a twelfth-century basilica, with its marvelous frescoes and Romanesque mosaics and Cosmatesque floor, lying on top of a fourth-century basilica, lying on top of a Roman Mithraic temple—all of which layers, in good Roman fashion, are visible still if you’re game to walk some flights of stairs into a rather dank basement.
Other favorite places include Trastevere, which when I lived there was far from being the tourist destination it is now, and the flea market at Porta Portese, where one used to find extraordinary things (less so now, I’m sure). As well as numerous pizzerie and gelaterie!
5. One of the most poignant relationships in the book is the one between Leonard and his grandfather, especially as Leonard realizes what his grandfather was trying to get across to him all those years, with his stories and strange questions. And in a more general sense, the novel seems especially concerned with different generations learning to understand and appreciate each other. I guess what I’m asking is: do you have nephews with magical powers and a grandfather who likes herring?
Hah! I do have nieces and nephews—four at last count—each as precocious and precious as Felix, if not more so. This book is dedicated to them, in fact. Something about the magic of this book makes me think about kids, their imagination and sense of what’s possible.
But this is also a book about received wisdom, wisdom transmitted from generation to generation. We eventually learn that Sally and Leonard themselves, and also Leonard’s grandfather, descend from Isaac’s disciples, Ezra and Azriel, who were responsible for transmitting Isaac’s teachings. And of course, we know that it was essential that Leonard’s grandfather transmit what he knew through Leonard, even if he died too early to help Leonard make sense of what he’d learned. Recovering that link of transmission—in an age of assimilation where a proliferation of ideologies obscures our native heritage and elders may not retain their original authority—is one of Isaac’s most important tasks. So there is the sense that what family members teach us, what they offer us and pass down to us, is critical.
The word Kabbalah refers to what is received (and we remember that receptivity is Leonard’s Special Gift!). So transmission of learning and heritage through the generations is really important here, but so is the simpler transmission of love and care between and among the generations—and in this regard, we are moved (I hope!) by Leonard’s love for his grandfather and Carol’s many sacrifices and the responsibility Carol, Leonard, and Felix (and eventually Sally) feel for each other.