From award-winning writer, Brigitte Goldstein, comes “Dina’s Lost Tribe” – a mystery that weaves together the lives of two women – one from the 14th century and the other from present day. Historical scholar, Goldstein, draws on her extensive knowledge of Jewish and European history to create characters, plot, and setting that ring true and offer readers an experience filled with depth and heart.
You discuss your dissatisfaction the trends in historical studies that you encountered during your university years and your passion for literature and history. How did the contrast between your dissatisfaction and your passion inform and influence your writing?
Dissatisfaction is not quite the right word for the transformation I was undergoing. After many years of studying and a brief stint of teaching, I came to realize that I am temperamentally not well suited for academic history. I love history, the story of people in time, in various places and circumstances. I discovered in me a desire to put myself in the shoes of those who lived through the trial and tribulations. For me, fiction was a more compelling way of telling the story of the past. However, taking actual historical personages and fictionalize their lives, which is commonly done by historical novelists, likewise didn’t suit me. For me creating my own characters and developing a plot within a particular historical setting (well researched and authentically and plausible reproduced) would be a better and more exciting way of conveying historical events. My emphasis is always on the human condition, the struggle of individuals caught in the web of power beyond their control. Also, on a more personal level, there are always the inter-human relationships of love, deceit, intrigue, envy, stuff like that of which you don’t get much from academic paradigms interested to prove some thesis.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?
My writing certainly has an effect on my daily life. I do most of my work during the night, early morning hours. I try not to answer the telephone while I am engrossed in a different world. Even though it’s not completely possibly, I try to stay away from current events. Not very successfully with the world in turmoil. But when wasn’t it? That’s one thing history can teach us: there’s always been upheavals, wars, conflicts, and very few peaceful periods—which is a gold mine for historical novelists.
What do you do when you are not writing?
At this point in my life, I am retired from working in publishing. I live by myself and have the luxury of disposing of my time as the spirit moves me. (This wasn’t always the case.) I read (mostly novels; I try to reread some of the classics), listen to classical music, ride my bicycle. Of course, I have a circle of friends, mostly associated with the synagogue I belong to. I travel by car to visit my children and grandchildren; I also have grandchildren in Israel whom I visit at least once a year.)
The core story centers on Dina, a Jewish woman, who lived in the fourteenth century at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from France. That was the original idea was to write a Dina story; Dina having been the daughter of Jacob in the Bible who was defiled (raped) by a local prince. My medieval Dina is left behind in a village in the Pyrenees as her family flees to Spain due to the fact that she suffers a similar fate as her biblical ancestress. She gives an account of what happened to her to her children, a document, or codex, that is discovered and deciphered centuries later by an American historian who was born in the mountains as her parents fled from Nazi persecution. So that is the connection: the persecution and expulsion of the Jews and the geographic area.
Dina's Tribe is a departure from your earlier novels: Court of Miracles: A Human Comedy of 17th Century France and Princess of the Blood: A Tapestry of Love and War in Sixteenth-Century France. What led you to write a book that moved from the modern world to the historic?
Since the time of my studies of French literature and history at the Sorbonne, medieval and early modern France had a special fascination for me. So my first two novels were set in that time and place. My graduate studies at NYU were more closely focused on modern European history, especially modern Germany. So my Dina book actually combines these two areas as far-flung as they may be. Somehow I pulled them together. Both stories were originally conceived as two separate novels. But once I got started with the medieval Dina’s story, the characters of refugees from Nazi Germany sort of beckoned to come in.
Both you and your main character, Nina Aschauer are historical scholars. I'm not a big believer in coincidence so tell us how that came about.
Not too much of a coincidence though not in any way biographical. It just seemed logical that Nina should become a historian. She was very intrigued about her birth and the history of her people, the Jewish people in modern and more remote times. So was her cousin the narrator who brings the stories of these two women together.
What are your current/future projects?
My most recent novel is an award-winning historical mystery Death of a Diva—From Berlin to Broadway. It starts out with the murder of an international star of screen and stage at a Broadway theater in the summer of 1941. The investigation then traces the victim’s life from her humble origins in a Viennese ghetto to stardom in Weimar Berlin and then the émigré haven in New York. The narrator is a young woman, herself a German-Jewish refugee, who is the main character in the novel I am currently writing in which she returns to Germany in 1946, under an assumed identity, to find her grandmother who may or may not be alive.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
From history, historical research, and most of all from my imagination.
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
As I mentioned above, I write mostly at night. I am not hung up on writing a certain number of words a day. Sometimes I just sit and think for a long time and live the scenes in my head before I put fingers to keyboard. I should mention that at the start of a project I use yellow pads and a pen. After about a chapter or two, I ease over to the computer.
Are there certain themes or ideas you prefer?
This may sound trite, but my ultimate concern is to portrait aspects of the human condition. I am not a political or ideological writer, I don’t preach, and, in accordance with Isaac Bashevis Singer, I don’t try to redeem the world through my writing. I just try to be first and foremost a storyteller of exciting stories.
What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
I often describe myself as a nineteenth-century writer. Most of the writers that inspire me most come from that period or the early twentieth century. The great Russians –Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is certainly one of the greatest novels ever written; Germans like Thomas Mann; French like Balzac and Stendhal. Victor Hugo was a great influence on my earlier novels especially Princess of the Blood. Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, Philip Roth, an eclectic bunch, are some of my favorite writers in the English language. Among more recent writers are Nicole Krauss and Julie Orringer.
What are the most important elements of good historical fiction writing?
Compelling characters and plots. What makes these compelling is a usually a hero or heroine with tragic back story, an overriding goal for the character to pursue and obstacles to overcome. Conflict, inner and outer, love and loss, and more conflict. Without conflict there’s no story. There also has to be development. The main character is put through the mill by those forces, human or natural and comes out changed, a different person. Who wants to read about a walk in the clouds or through a flowery meadow and peaceful evening by the hearth with a character who has no doubts and all is well with the world?
Talk about revising and/or suggestions about revising for upcoming writers.
Revision, revision, revision! No first draft is ever publishable, no matter who the writer is. But you also have to let go at some point and hand it over to a copy editor, preferably two different copy editors, and in the end a proofreader. Many writers think they can wing it and do without a professional editor (don’t rely on a friend you think is good at writing; not even people in a writing group have the requisite skill and eye for detail). Everything has to be edited. I worked in publishing as a production editor and know from experience that this is an essential part of any published work—even great writers get edited.
What's one additional piece of advice about writing or publishing you'd like to pass on to readers and writers?
If you are a writer, if you feel the calling, not someone who had an idea for a book one day, write, write, write, but keep a job on the side or marry comfortably. Publishing is a tough business. I have not been able to figure out what criteria agents, editors, and publishers apply. Don’t be discouraged by the clichés they dish out. If you are young enough and have the energy keep on storming the bastion.
Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book?
Writing is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is also one of the most gratifying endeavors if that’s the muse that gives you wings.
The idea for Dina’s Lost Tribe (it wasn’t called that in the beginning) resided in my head for many years and when the birth finally took place it turned out very differently than originally conceived; the story metamorphosed under my very eyes. I often didn’t know where it was going, what turn it was going to take. That’s what’s so exciting about creating your characters and stories. I certainly never foresaw the ending of Dina. No spoilers please.