What attracted you to the idea of setting a book in the Civil War?
I think that every historical novel is really much more about the time in which it is written than the time in which it takes place, and that is very true for this book. The Civil War attracted me because of how polarized America has become in the past decade, and because of how impossible it has become even to have a conversation about current events without knowing in advance what the other person believes. The divide between conservatives and liberals, or "red states" and "blue states," really does go back to the Civil War in so many ways; the "red states" and "blue states" tend to follow the Mason-Dixon line and its legacies.
In 2002, after my first novel was published, I was invited to speak in New Orleans, and while I was there, I came across an old Jewish cemetery. I was surprised to see that the graves went back to the early 1800s. When I read more about it, I discovered that New Orleans in the nineteenth century had the second largest American Jewish population after New York. I began reading about Jewish communities during the Civil War and discovered a wealth of material, and what most intrigued me was how these communities responded to the war. Generally they did so with a passionate patriotism, regardless of which side they lived on. But as a national community, their response was a bit unusual. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are "Southern" Baptists or "Southern" Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America by then, such as B'nai Brith, none of them split during the Civil War. One could claim this was due to the Jewish community’s small size (about 130,000 Jews lived in America in 1860), but I also think there was a more profound reason. Today it is common for Americans to have relatives around the country, but in the nineteenth century this was fairly rare except among American Jews, who, because they were more often running businesses than running farms, were more likely to live mobile lives and to have relatives and business contacts in other parts of the country. This made them somewhat more likely than other Americans to appreciate the other side's point of view.
It was this tension between the need to prove one's loyalty to one's home and a sense of closeness to people on the other side that I found fascinating. Civil War fiction is usually written from an uncompromising point of view most often sympathetic to the South. I wanted to write something that showed the cruelty and the humanity of both sides, and in the Jewish community of the time I found a way to express it.
Do you think of yourself as someone with strong political views?
I am a political moderate, which makes me an endangered species. I am generally able to disagree with someone's point of view without also believing that they are the incarnation of evil. For this reason I'm particularly fascinated by situations where two sides demonize each other especially when there is a certain legitimacy to each side.
To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Civil War was that most people who fought and died for the South didn't own slaves. Instead they saw themselves as defending their homes and defending an agrarian, traditionalist, independence-minded culture that they rightly saw as threatened by the way in which industry and technology had already changed the North. Most novels about the Civil War take a very particular approach to who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, whether novels nostalgic for the old South or novels that explore the evils of slavery. In my writing, I am more drawn to situations where the boundaries between good and evil don’t run between people, but within them.
Your previous novels were quite openly engaged with the theological dimension of religion. Does that have any role in this book?
It's true that the supernatural is explicit in my previous books in a way that isn't apparent in this novel. But I do feel that there is a theological dimension to the book in the ethical dilemmas the characters confront and in the ways the characters change. The title "All Other Nights" refers to the Passover liturgy, when the youngest person present asks the question, "How is this night different from all other nights?" But the question behind that question is more difficult to answer: Are we or do we have to be the same people from one night to the next? Do people ever really change? Or, to put it in religious terms, is repentance possible?
Nineteenth-century Americans often referred to God as "Providence," suggesting not only a provider but also an arbiter of destiny. There are a number of places in this book where characters see the events around them as directed by "Providence" and in more than one instance, they turn out to be demonstrably wrong about the impact of those events. To me, the most powerful theological notion is the idea of human free will, the awesome responsibility that people have for their own choices. The crimes and betrayals committed by the characters in this novel are unforgivable, but those characters cannot continue their lives without finding some way to atone for what they have done. In the novel, the characters often have opportunities to revisit these crimes, when they find themselves confronted once more with similar choices to make. Then they have to decide whether they are capable of being different people tonight than they were in the past.
Are the characters in the novel based on real people?
There are several real historical figures who appear in the book. The most prominent of these is Judah Benjamin. We think of the Civil War South as being institutionally bigoted, and of course it was which is why it is striking that Benjamin was Jewish. Benjamin was a prominent lawyer who was a U.S. senator prior to the Civil War; he was born in the Caribbean and could trace his family’s history to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Despite widespread belief that he was one of the smartest people in North America, he was also loathed far more than were his peers and he was frequently abused in the press. He is also a cryptic figure in history, one who deflected personal questions, had few if any intimate friends, and burned all his own papers. I saw his career as a fascinating glimpse of what it was like to be Jewish in America at the time, though sometimes a devastating glimpse as well.
Other characters in the book are also inspired by real people, including both Jewish and non-Jewish spies for the North and the South. Some of these simply provided fun facts there was one female Southern spy who had the ability to dislocate her own jaw at will, for instance, and who was engaged to sixteen men at the same time. But one of the more compelling figures to inspire these characters was Eugenia Levy Phillips. She was a Southern Jewish woman who spied for the Confederacy and was imprisoned twice by Union forces—once in the home of fellow spy Rose Greenhow and once in a boxcar in the Gulf of Mexico. Her husband, Philip Phillips (I couldn't make this up), a Jewish congressman from Alabama, was actually a moderate who opposed the South's secession from the Union, while his wife was obviously a fire-breathing Rebel. Despite these differences, they raised nine children together, and Mr. Phillips even used his political influence to secure his wife's release from captivity. I was intrigued by how a marriage can transcend a historic moment, and by how the "causes" we believe in change when they become personal.
What lies behind your decision to mix genuine historical figures and fictional characters in your work, rather than writing "pure" history or "pure" fiction?
The kind of fiction I tend to like best is usually the kind rooted in reality, allowing the reader to imagine his or her way into a life lived by someone else. One particularly voyeuristic way to achieve this is to write about someone who actually existed. In some ways, these real-life characters become a kind of historical detail in the book, like riding crops and gas lamps with the effect of making the story's setting more vivid and making the invented characters seem all the more real in the process.
But as an academic with a tremendous respect for the unanswerable questions in historical research, I am also terribly cautious about the way I include real people in fiction. I've never tried to write something from the point of view of a historical figure, for instance, because I think it would be very arrogant to pretend to know the thoughts of someone who really did once have his own thoughts and consciousness. Instead I introduce these people through the fictional characters who encounter them, and much of what comes through of these figures' personalities is filtered through the fictional character's point of view just as our view of these real people is colored by our own perspectives when we try to learn about their lives from historical sources. The challenge of trying to bring these people to life in fiction, in ways that would be impossible if I were writing conventional history, is to serve the story while trying to be fair to the reality of these people's lives.
While, as I've said, many of the characters in the book are composites or inspired by real-life historical figures, only three are "borrowed" from history with the known details of their real lives left intact: Judah Benjamin (the Confederate secretary of state), Edwin Booth (a renowned New York actor who was the brother of Lincoln's assassin), and John Surratt (a Confederate courier who was arrested for his alleged involvement in Lincoln's murder, though he avoided conviction). Of course, there is some security in depicting people long dead, but less than you’d expect. My previous novel, The World to Come, also featured real-life figures: the painter Marc Chagall and the Yiddish writer Der Nister, both safely dead. But that was when I discovered the phenomenon of the Angry Heir. (Chagall's granddaughter liked the book, though I did hear from others who were less thrilled.) I look forward to hearing from more enraged descendants this time, especially those who have had over a century for their grievances to fester. I hope they'll believe me that I meant no disrespect.
There is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the ability or inability to say no. What got you thinking about that?
I was interested in exploring the ways in which freedom is a mental rather than a physical state. One character in the book, Caleb Johnson, is a slave who secretly works for the North as an agent for the Legal League, a network of African American spies that maintained an ancillary underground railroad for both black and white agents employed by the Northern government. (The Legal League really did exist. I based Caleb’s character in part on John Scobell, a renowned African American spy who posed as a slave, as well as on other African American agents from the period.) When Caleb takes Jacob in at one point in the novel, it becomes clear that Caleb has made his own choices about what to devote himself to, and as a result he is far more of a free person than Jacob is. Throughout the book, Jacob makes choices without realizing that all along he had the freedom to do otherwise.
People frequently give up their mental liberty in exchange for any number of things pride, status, ambition, love, or any other desire to fulfill the expectations of others, often without being aware of what they have lost. Freedom isn't about having no obligations, but about the ability to choose one's obligations.
I love your dedication to your children as "the cause." Yet, given that this novel has strong political themes and for each side the "cause" is political, it also makes me question: If our children are the only "cause," or a given "cause" is held as emotionally close as our children, can anything ever be achieved, or resolved, in politics?
In the book, one of the characters claims that "raising children is one of the only things one can do with one's life," because, as he puts it, "You can devote yourself to a cause, but what cause could be worth more than a child?" I do think that devotion to a cause is something that only people without children usually have the luxury of expressing. People who are parents have something else in their lives that will almost always matter more to them. But people with children are also more likely to have something else that people without children are somewhat less likely to have, which is empathy for other people's children. Large social changes tend to happen only when enough people see the problem at hand as something that affects their own children or when enough people are motivated to care about other people's children.
What were the particular satisfactions (or frustrations) of writing this novel?
My two previous novels are written from many different perspectives, with scenes taking place at various points in history, and never in chronological order. For me this was always an easier way to write a book to follow whatever character's point of view was most intriguing, or use whatever historical period seemed most relevant to the themes of the story that emerged. As I began writing this book, though, I wondered if it would be possible for me to write a more traditionally structured novel: to write from just one character's point of view, with the events happening chronologically. That is, with no tricks.
Many contemporary novels (aspects of my previous books included) tend to rely on tricks on jumping around in time or perspective, or telling stories in a manner far more complicated than necessary. This can be valuable, but only to a point. Ultimately the reader needs a story and characters worth caring about for their own sake, and not merely for the styles or techniques used to present them. It was very refreshing for me to write this book almost as a nineteenth-century novel, complete with all the shameless action-adventure plot twists that nineteenth-century readers would have expected the book includes a shoot-out at a wedding, a kidnapping plot, a prison break (or three), and so on. It was a lot of fun, but it also forced me to focus on what matters most in writing a novel: making the plot and the characters compelling.
There are several different kinds of codes and puzzles in the book is that a particular fascination for you?
The great thing about Civil War ciphers and codes, for the general reader, is that they are on a human scale. After the 1930s, military codes became machine-generated, but ciphers prior to that were really just created by clever people, and were breakable by clever people too. That makes them a lot more fun for readers who don’t have a supercomputer in their garage.
The codes used by the North and the South are especially fun in this way. The Northern ciphers changed continuously but were always based on a word-reordering system, where the words of a message were restructured according to particular patterns and then certain crucial words were replaced with substitutes. This makes the coded messages seem easy to translate, but they are actually quite difficult to crack so much so that when Southerners intercepted coded Northern messages, they had to resort to publishing them in the newspapers and asking the general public for help in decoding them. No one ever cracked the code. But the main Southern cipher was based on a two-layered alphabet substitution system which makes the coded messages look completely indecipherable, but which is actually quite easy to break once you know how the letters are being substituted. (I have posted more detailed explanations of both ciphers on my Web site, www.darahorn.com.)
Some of the codes in the book are simply there for nonhistorical fun. Rose, the youngest of the spy sisters, speaks in palindromes and anagrams, a talent she uses when ciphering real messages. These codes and puzzles interest me because people almost always speak in some sort of code. In the novel and in real life, an enormous percentage of daily conversation consists of both outward and hidden meanings, and the way something is said is almost always more important that the words themselves.
Your first two books ranged around the world, from suburban New Jersey to Holland to the Soviet Union to Vietnam. This one is set purely in the United States. Do you have an itch to travel again? If so, where might you take us in your next novel?
I've been fortunate to travel a lot in my life; I've been to about fifty countries around the world, and that is something that has deeply influenced my novels. Now that I have three children aged three and under, I spend a lot more time closer to home. But I feel lucky to be able to draw from my experiences in other countries and cultures, even while writing a book set in my native country because while this book takes place in America, it is a very different America from the one that anyone alive today has ever lived in. I don't know where my next book might go at the moment I've only written the first fifty pages that I'm sure to throw away but it will likely involve another country, even if it's only this country in the past.
Copyright W. W. Norton 2009