Interview: Batya Casper Author of Israela

Finalist of the 2018 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

Shelf Unbound: Tell us about your book.

Batya Casper: Israela is a novel about Israel: its history and its complex social-structure. It is about people who send their children off to war from generation to generation with no end in sight—their traditions, the fears they live with on a daily basis, the power of family and love.  A 3,000-year-old rift has existed between cousin nations. A mammoth effort, a fight for the good life, is going to have to take place in order for these peoples to live at peace with their neighbors. What will happen if they won’t fight the good fight? Will they remain forever a life-loving people living with war—or will they change?

Ratiba is an Israeli journalist who relinquishes family and friends to marry an Arab and move to his village. For 30 years, she hides her Jewish identity from her husband and children. Her sister, Orit, is an actor who feels betrayed by Ratiba and exacts revenge on her with repercussions that exceed her worst nightmares. Their cousin Elisheva dedicates her life to healing the wounded and the dying of the Second Israeli Intifada. As they mature, these women are forced to make choices they would never have imagined.

Shelf Unbound: How did you go about developing this book?

Casper: In 2002, during the Second Arab Intifada in Israel, I began, without realizing it, to worry this book into being. At first, my intention was simply to trace the history of modern Israel up to that moment in time in order to understand why peace was so elusive and how, after all those years, Israel was still mired in such a violent reality. I was writing for the many people I meet who are ignorant of the complexity and the richness of Israeli life; ignorant of the temerity that all of Israel’s citizens demonstrate, and of the excruciating concerns that tear them apart on a constant basis. But, as I wrote, fictional characters and actions kept popping into my head, forcing me to follow them. Conflicts, secrets, lies, tender moments, and moments of betrayal grew into Israela.

Shelf Unbound: What was the experience of writing this book like for you?

Casper: I was going through a difficult period in my personal life, at that time, and Israela became my refuge. I loved every moment of it. I have always felt most deeply quiet and centered while writing. 

Shelf Unbound: What writing advice do you have for other Indie authors?

Casper: We all have our different ways of writing. Some love to plan everything out ahead of time, to have the characters and the plot set before writing begins. That method works well for many serious, wonderful authors, but it isn’t a good fit for me. I need to write and write till I have flushed the story out—and then go back and edit. For me the editing is an extremely creative aspect of writing; it means shaping and reshaping the movement and the characters until I have them in (what is for me) perfect focus. The rhythm and music of the language are also important to me. My advice, if any, for other Indie authors, is to state the obvious: Follow your instincts. Don’t go where you think you “should,” but where your feelings, the rhythm of the language, and the pull of the story lead you. 

Shelf Unbound: What are you working on next?

Casper: Since Israela, I have published Hidden: Nistar, comprised of two novellas, Hidden and Hanover Gardens, in a single volume. Hidden, set in Israel, moves backward in time, covering three generations of a single family shrouded in secrecy and pain. Hanover Gardens is set in WW11 England. It is about refugees waiting out the war. You can find Hidden: Nistar on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I am currently working on a second edition of my first book (none fiction), Electra: A Gender Sensitive Study of Plays Based on the Myth, McFarland &Co. publishers, 1995. 

Read an Excerpt:

… as Daifa was coming out of her room, before she’d even combed her hair, Ibrahim told her that a Palestinian friend of his had been in our home looking for her. 

“He wants to bring his son to see you this evening.”  

my… feisty, strong-willed daughter who has always refused to be “matched up” … mumbled, “Sure, why not?” 

“’Why not?’ That’s it? Daifa, this will be no casual acquaintance,” I squawked. “The man wants you to marry his son.” 

“Yes, Ommy. I’ve met his son. Abee introduced me to him last month when you were collecting your paycheck in Jerusalem.” 

“Daifa, it’s not you this man wants. He’s a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He has an agenda. He doesn’t have citizenship.” 

“If I marry him, he will. If I were to marry him I could work with him. Be part of something larger than myself.” 

Wadha was standing in the doorway sewing a button on her shirt, watching our scene play itself out. Ibrahim was hiding behind the newspaper, my newspaper, the one I write for. Bastard, I thought, he’s not going to help me here, not say a word. He’s simply going to eat his omelet while I breakfast on heartburn. 

“Can you hear what you are saying?” trampling the feta cheese over my bread with my fingers, forcing my voice to remain in a regular key. “These men are angry, dangerous even. You are a woman, Daifa, with human being needs, women’s needs, not a political pawn.” 

Ommy, why are you so worked up? I know what I’m doing. I told you, I’ve met him. He’s nice. Besides, where is the ‘think for yourselves, make your own decisions’ mother that brought us up? The one we’ve always been so proud of? Just words, right? When push comes to shove, parents never mean what they say.” 

“I always mean what I say, Daifa. I want you to choose a life of love, of joy, not violence, not danger.” 

“Other mothers would be proud to have a daughter who wants to help our people. If I marry that man, that’s what I’ll be doing. Helping.” 

I pulled my shawl from the hall closet, banged the door behind me, picked my way through the early morning mist to Adiva, our sweet, aging mama goat. I sat on a rock near her as she lay in her stall, as she ruminated on her straw. 

What have I done? I paced the stubble ’round and ’round my mamma goat’s bed till I was sure I’d made her dizzy. I tried to force my brain to work out what it was I’d done, but I couldn’t. What have I done to my children?— My brain, like an automaton, refusing to punch out its message. I tried to think what I should do from that point on, but no, nothing would come out of me but, What have I done to my children? Adiva was no help. She’d given up on me way back, when I gave away her first litter; when I first started stealing her milk for cheese. Despite my efforts to be different from the way my mother parented me, despite the pride I’d taken in the example I thought I was setting, I’d failed my children, had guided them to the brink of disaster. 

I can’t appeal to Ibrahim, I thought. So much I can’t tell him. A giant mound of desert sand has grown between us, a Middle Eastern Becket play. Huge. Smelling of feuds, daggers, camels. There’s no way I can move around it, I told myself. Sand in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in the food I eat, invisible, but there just the same. Taboo. Observed by both of us, like vultures hunched on a tree, waiting. I couldn’t hold another thought in my aching head. 

I fell in love with Ibrahim while discussing politics, challenging differences. Now, I thought, all we have to talk about is the weather, or what time he’ll come home at night. God or Allah or Pan or whoever it is that supplies married couples with words, didn’t give us enough, not the right kind, not the gentle, wise kind. All I could think of was my absent son and the dark secret in the shed. Orit hardly pops into my head anymore.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

Continue Reading.