Author On the Bookcase: Mitchell James Kaplan, author of By Fire, By Water

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Author On the Bookcase
Mitchell James Kaplan  

History and religion and politics -- oh my!

Mitchell James KaplanI'm pleased to welcome Mitchell James Kaplan, author of the debut novel, By Fire, By Water. Mitchell's book tells the heartbreaking story of Luis de Santangel, the courtier who convinced Queen Isabella to sponsor Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery in 1492. Combining a passionate love story with a religious mystery, By Fire, By Water closely follows historical events during a troubled time, when the medieval social order was collapsing.

Mitchell tells us about "his voyage of discovery'" when readers explore his book and find additional story lines.

Set sail, Mitchell!

When I began researching By Fire, By Water, my intent was to place Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage in context. Schoolchildren, it seemed to me, rarely learned much about the world Columbus left behind. Without understanding his world, how could anyone grasp the purpose and meaning of his voyage?

He sailed from southern Spain, where the emirate of Granada, the last Islamic political entity in Europe, had recently fallen to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. On the Santa Maria, Columbus took along a native of Granada, a Jew recently baptised with the name Luis de Torres, as official interpreter. According to Columbus’s journals, de Torres spoke Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew in addition to Spanish. Columbus apparently thought these languages would be useful where he was going.

Where, then, was he going? My research convinced me that Columbus was sailing not just to the Indias described by Marco Polo, but to Terrestrial Paradise – that is, the Garden of Eden. Beyond that lay Jerusalem. People in these places, Columbus believed, spoke the same languages as Luis de Torres – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. The idea of returning to paradise and Jerusalem held religious value for Columbus, who believed the end of the world was at hand and thought of himself as a sort of messiah figure.

By Fire, By WaterMy first draft of By Fire, By Water told the story of Luis de Torres, the Jewish witness to the fall of Islamic Granada who ended up as Christopher Columbus’s Christian interpreter in a land where no one had ever heard of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. It also portrayed Columbus and the religious fervor with which he conceived and pursued his vision.

Columbus spent about a decade researching and trying to “sell” his project. One royal court after another refused to sponsor him, but the Genoese mariner remained fervent. His last hope was Isabella of Castille, who sent him away three times without making a commitment. At this point, another figure steps in – Luis de Santangel, chancellor of Aragon. He convinces the queen to sponsor Columbus’s voyage, offering to arrange the financing.

Why, I wondered, did the chancellor of Aragon so forcibly associate himself with Columbus’s far-fetched dream? As I explored this question, it became clear that Luis de Santangel stood at the center of the most horrific events of his time: Isabella’s usurpation of the crown of Castille, the brutal Spanish Inquisition, the war against Granada, and the expulsion of all the Jews from Spain. For the chancellor as for Columbus, the proposed voyage of discovery must have held within it a religious hope for something better.

My novel evolved into the story of how a worldly, skeptical courtier slowly bought into the fantasy of a Genoese sailor – and then, in a triumph of faith over reason, how that fantasy turned out to be true.

With my second draft, I retold the story not from Luis de Torres’ perspective but from that of Luis de Santangel. The Spanish Inquisition took on more importance, not because I had intended to write a novel about the Spanish Inquisition but because the Spanish Inquisition played such a significant role in Santangel’s life.

For me, the core of the story remained what it had always been, an exploration of the background of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. What a surprise, then, to learn first from my publisher and then from the reading public that others saw it as a novel not about the background of Columbus’s voyage, but about the Spanish Inquisition.

And so, my own voyage of discovery continues. The book I thought I wrote is not exactly the book others read. I have no problem with that. By Fire, By Water is more like a land I discovered than a world I created. I don’t own that land. As readers explore it, I find their reports sometimes surprising, but always intriguing.

Thank for sharing your exploration into your novel with us, Mitchell. Reading groups will discover many discussible topics in By Fire, By Water!

Read more about Mitchell and By Fire, By Water.

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