‘By Fire, By Water’

‘By Fire, By Water’

Mitchell Kaplan’s garden is in full bloom.
After years of patient nurturing, research and weeding, the show has begun.
“This April, the blossoms burst forth from their sprigs. First came the delicate spring snowflakes, peering up between the blades of my lawn like some kind of harbinger. I hadn’t even planted them. Then the blackberry flowers, the butterfly bush, the tulips,” Kaplan wrote on his blog last week. “Songbirds have alighted as if to celebrate.”
“Of course, it’s all a metaphor,” Kaplan grins, as if it should be obvious to anyone who knows his story.
Kaplan, who gave up life in the fast lane in Hollywood and moved to Mt. Lebanon three and a half years ago, is finally reaping the rewards of years of hard work, and realizing his dream of becoming a novelist.
And not just any old novelist, but a novelist whose first book has received prestigious recognition before it has even been published.
“By Fire, By Water,” published by Other Press — an affiliate of Random House — will hit bookstore shelves May 18. It has already been chosen for this year’s “One Book, One Jewish Community,” Philadelphia’s citywide program that selects one book for the entire Jewish community to read.
Kaplan is in good company. Previous selections for the program include Dara Horn’s “All Other Nights” and Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s Paradise.”
“By Fire, By Water,” a historical novel centered around the events of the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’ journey to the new world, was also selected as one of six debut novels whose authors will speak at the American Library Association convention in Washington, D.C., in June.
So, the blooming flowers are a metaphor, he says.
Kaplan and his wife, Annie, have been through a lot in the last five years, and are finally at the place they had dreamed they would reach.
“We went through one extremely serious situation after another,” Kaplan said, including life-threatening illnesses and an assault, which left him with amnesia for a time.
Kaplan worked as a scriptwriter and consultant in Hollywood, joining such projects as the Walter Matthau/Dan Ackroyd film “The Couch Trip,” and the Chevy Chase film “Fletch Lives.” He also helped actor Kirk Douglas write one of his books.
He and Annie were “on the Hollywood treadmill,” when they finally decided they should leave California. They wanted to downsize from their large house in Big Bear, sell their private plane, and move to Mt. Lebanon so they could “live a simpler life,” and Mitchell could focus on writing a novel.
The Kaplans could have gone anywhere; they chose Mt. Lebanon after researching various communities on the Internet. They liked the demographics of the South Hills community, the emphasis on quality education, the low crime rate and the low housing cost.
“We love Pittsburgh. We have a wonderful life in this town without it being too difficult like big cities,” Kaplan said. “And our friends here are both down to earth and sophisticated.”
Kaplan says he owes publication of his novel to “the alignment of the stars.”
In April 2009, after a series of ups and downs, circulating drafts to various publishers and editors, his book finally ended up in the hands of an associate editor at Other Press. Kaplan was “persistent and polite,” regularly reminding her to read the inquiry he had sent to her by e-mail.
Eventually, she did.
“The next day, she asked for the whole book,” Kaplan said. “The day after that, I got a call form the publisher with a generous offer.”
The genesis of “By Fire, By Water” began almost 30 years ago, when Kaplan was living in Paris and doing research at the Bibliothaque Nationale. He came across a list of the sailors who had sailed with Christopher Columbus in 1492.
“One person seemed to be dead weight,” Kaplan recalled. “He didn’t know anything about being a sailor. He was a translator. … He spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish and Arabic. Where did Christopher Columbus think he was going that he needed someone to translate Aramaic, the language of Jesus?”
That man was Luis de Santçngel, chancellor to the king of Aragon and a converso, a Jewish convert to Christianity, suspected of secretly practicing Judaism.
The novel is set in a time “the world was destroying itself because of religious intolerance, when religious intolerance was about to become law,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan is now at work on his second novel, set “at the end of the biblical era,” and exploring the divergence of early Christianity and early Judaism, “things they don’t teach you in Hebrew school,” he said.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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