Ruth Tenzer Feldman was enjoying a successful second career as a children’s history author when, just before she moved to Portland from the Washington, D.C. suburbs in 2006, she decided to try her hand at historical fiction. The reason, she says, was simple: “I had an urge to lie.”
Both books feature young female protagonists from the same fictional family and a magical prayer shawl, which is passed down through generations of Jewish women and serves as a portal to another time.
The Ninth Day takes us first to Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement in December 1964, the pivotal student protest against limiting political activities on campus. There we meet 16-year-old Hope Friis, who dreams of winning a college scholarship for her singing despite a profound stutter. As she juggles a turbulent home life, she is visited by a mysterious woman named Serakh, who transports her to the Jewish Quarter of 11th-century Paris to solve a mystery that imperils a newborn child.
The action unfolds over the nine days of Hanukkah, which pass simultaneously in 1964 Berkeley and 1099 Paris. Hope races against time to find the clues to save a child’s life and discover what matters in the tumult of her own.
Novel writing is a third act of sorts for Feldman, 66. A New Jersey native, she spent 17 years as a legislative attorney for the U.S. Department of Education. While there she also wrote for a magazine for young history buffs, and later authored schoolbooks for Lerner Publishing on historical figures and events such as President James Garfield and the fall of Constantinople.
Arts & Life talked with Feldman about the historical fiction genre, autobiographical elements in The Ninth Day and whether she believes time travel is possible.
Arts & Life: What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
Ruth Tenzer Feldman: “I like making up stories. And I also like history. I figure this all came together when I was writing the biography of Calvin Coolidge. He used to press the alarm button of the front porch of the White House, and then he used to hide behind the curtains, to see what the Secret Service would do, because the guy was a prankster. I so wanted to find the scene where somebody from the Secret Service actually goes behind the curtain and finds him, or what the story is like from the Secret Service’s point of view. And that’s when I knew it was time to go into historical fiction.”
A&L: Was there an audience you had in mind when you wrote this book?
RTF: “In theory, it is a young adult novel. In practice, as I learned with Blue Thread, I aimed it mostly for girls who were 13, 14, 15 years old, but their moms also got into it. So I write from the point of view of a girl who is 16, and I want to make it accessible to girls who are in their teens, but I don’t want to limit my audience.”
A&L: How much of the The Ninth Day did you have mapped out before you started?
RTF: “I knew I wanted to take a girl who stuttered and I wanted to put her in the Free Speech Movement and explore what it was to speak freely — what it meant for society and what it meant for her. Some writers start out with plot or an idea they want to convey. I tend to start out with a character or two and I put them in a situation and then see how the story unfolds.”
A&L: What do you owe your readers when your book is labeled historical fiction?
RTF: “I think readers of historical fiction are in a precarious position. They’re relying on me to give them a story, and they don’t know what is true and what isn’t true. I want to build up as much trust with the reader as I possibly can. It’s kind of a strange world. The readers have to have some trust, but they also need to doubt. And the writer’s job is to build as much trust as possible within that context of saying, ‘But remember: It’s fiction.’”
A&L: The Ninth Day is set during Hanukkah, and there are references to Jewish customs and traditions and a smattering of Hebrew words. Are you writing specifically for a Jewish audience?
RTF: “I don’t see this as a Jewish book. To me, this is mostly a story about humanity. I purposely gave Hope a Lutheran father, and even in 1099 Paris, the main Jewish character goes to the apothecary’s wife, who is trying to help her with herbs that were harvested during a certain saint’s day. I’m Jewish, so I can speak to that tradition, and I use that as my lens. I see things based on what my background and heritage is. But I’m writing both for people who are not Jewish and for Jews who can look at clues to tradition and heritage and say, ‘Yeah, that sounds familiar, that sounds familiar … ’.”
A&L: Hope’s stutter plays prominently in the story. At the beginning, it’s her main source of self-loathing, but by the end she comes to terms with it and is able to speak up for what she believes. You acknowledge in the author’s note that you stuttered as a child. How does your experience compare to Hope’s?
RTF: “Painfully close. I let stuttering define my life from the time I was about four years old until … well, there are still days when if I’m very tired, I will have that stutter that Hope has, being stuck on a certain syllable. But really it wasn’t until I did some soul-searching about what I wanted to say — what I was using stuttering to hide behind — that I realized you can speak up and speak out even if you’re not articulate.”
A&L: Are there any lessons or messages you want readers to take away from this book?
RTF: “Maybe it’s not to let other people define you. And you can do way more than you think you can do. One way that helps you to be more than a self-centered echo chamber is to connect to people across cultures and experiences.”
A&L: Both of your novels rest on the concept of “intertwining” two different moments in time. Do you believe in time travel?
RTF: “Yes and no. We see time as this linear thing, but if you look at physics or Einstein, time folds in on itself. So I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if we just took two little pieces of time and we intertwined them. And we realized that what happened back then wasn’t so different from what’s happening now. For me, the scary thing is the third book in this series [which will be set partly in 2059 Portland], where I go into the future that hasn’t happened yet — or perhaps it’s already happened and we just don’t know. Maybe one reason I’m still writing these books is because I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it.”