Mary Morris’s new book, Gateway to the Moon, weaves together the contemporary story of Miguel Torres, a young man desperately trying to escape an impoverished New Mexico town, with the tales of his ancestors’ long journey from Spain. Tracing back to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492, this novel tells the story of the Jews who held on to their heritage despite the family rupture and torture they endured and poses questions about what connects and claims us.
Mary Morris is the author of numerous works of fiction, including A Mother’s Love,and House Arrest, and of nonfiction, including the travel memoir classic Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Morris won the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction for her recent novel The Jazz Palace. She is the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Michelle Brafman is the author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court and teaches at the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing program.
What surprised you the most about your research into this bleak chapter of Jewish history? (I was shocked to learn that the Duke of Seville financed Columbus’s second voyage with money he confiscated from the Jews of Seville before they were killed.)
Yes, that thing about the Duke of Seville is pretty shocking, but here’s something that really hit me hard. You know how when you go to Spain and there are all those stores that only sell Iberian ham, which is incredibly famous. Here’s why. When I was doing my history of food research, I learned that the Spanish in order to flush out the Jews of Andalusia killed the sheep and goats and brought in thousands of pigs. This is why Iberian ham became such an iconic Spanish food. It’s left over from the Inquisition. That really shocked me.
That is shocking. Your depiction of the Spanish Inquisition will undoubtedly introduce many readers to the term crypto-Jews — Jews who were persecuted for their religion and chose to practice their faith in secret. What drew you to this aspect of Jewish history?
This is a complicated and in some ways deeply personal question, but I’ll do my best. I feel that in many ways I have been a secret Jew. My parents named me Mary and my brother John so that no one would know we were Jewish by our names. My parents, especially my mother, were deeply opposed to organized religion. My mother told me once that the head rabbi at my grandmother’s synagogue had sexually molested her when she was a girl and that had turned her away from Judaism. Basically, I had almost no Jewish education, nor did we celebrate any Jewish holidays except with my grandparents. I was, however, very close to my maternal grandmother and she used to tell me stories of her childhood in Ukraine and her memory of the pogroms.
But sometime in college I began to search for answers. I was a bit lost and I began to want to know more about what it meant to be Jewish. I went to Hebrew school and I learned as much as I could. And then at a certain point I began to understand the darkness that covers much of Jewish history for the past two thousand years. I guess I was just hungry to learn who I was and where I really came from.
One of the minor characters delivers a similar line that stayed with me for days: “We all need to know where we came from.” What is the cost of not knowing where you come from?
Michael Ondaatje has an incredible image in is memoir, Running in the Family. He compares his own family to a troop of acrobats forming a pyramid and he’s right up there at the top. Or something like that. Just like a pyramid, knowing where we come from can be the foundation of who we are. It’s something I’ve always longed for anyway. Yes, it’s about foundation.
And speaking of foundations, one of my favorite passages occurs when Elena, one of the contemporary characters, while traveling in Morocco, conjures her dead grandmother via a bite of lamb tagine. Ghosts definitely roam the pages of this novel. Can I ask if you believe in ghosts?
Well, I can’t say that I literally believe in ghosts, though I do believe that things haunt us. My mother, however, who didn’t believe in ghosts at all, told me that my grandmother came to her one night shortly after she died and told her to be nice to me. I do believe in something that is hard to define, and often it does seem to me as if I have special connections to people or places that are difficult to explain vis a vis the real world. I was recently pleased to learn that 50% of the people in Iceland believe in elves. This brought me some comfort.
Switching gears, Read Her Like an Open Book is a popular blog among writers, so I thought I’d ask a few nerdy craft questions.
You use the moon metaphorically and as a recurring image to weave together the novel’s disparate narrative threads. Did you always know that you would make such use of the stars, moon, and even Carl Sagan? If not, how did this interest in astronomy evolve for you? And when did you decide to title the novel Gateway to the Moon?
This is such a complex and interesting question. Hard to answer, really. Let me do it backwards. I almost always had the title. It’s in one of the first journal entries I made about the book. Then, as far as the metaphor goes, well, I’m left-handed, very modular in my thinking, and I guess that the title led me more deeply into the moon, and then Miguel became an amateur astronomer and it kind of went on from that. Actually, Carl Sagan and his third wife, Annie, were much more prominent in the book, but my editor said, “I have no idea what they’re doing here,” so I took that out. Though Narrative will publish those pieces as a short story in July. Does that answer anything?
Yes, it does. That term “modular thinker” makes a lot of sense, particularly in reference to the design of this narrative. Your chapters move back and forth among the 15th, 16th, and 20th centuries. Did you write them in order? How did you approach braiding the pieces of the story together?
I never write in order and I usually have no idea where all the pieces will go. I’m like a junk collector. I just gather up all this stuff and then figure out what to do with it. Some I keep, some gets thrown out. And there’s always a big “maybe” pile. I like to print on different colored paper, so different characters or time frames get different colors. When I’m close to done, I lay it all out and start sewing it together like a patchwork quilt.
Gateway to the Moon moves like a locomotive. I’m wondering if you have a specific approach for balancing plot with the right amount of back story necessary to acclimate your reader to these various worlds you present.
Well, as William Gass once said, the art of writing is like the art of striptease. You don’t want to walk out naked but you also don’t want to take too long to remove your clothes. In other words, it’s all about pacing. Over the past couple years, we’ve been lucky enough to go to Italy and stay at a friend’s farmhouse. There’s an old cow barn with a Ping Pong table and I often just spread out whatever I feel as I say to myself, “Is this the moment for a flashback?” Or “I need to move the story forward here.” I guess in the end it comes down to an intuitive sense. You have to balance it out the way a good chef will balance a sauce. How is this for mixing metaphors?
It works! I loved the flash forwards. Were those fun to write?
Ha, yes they were. I like to give the reader a sense that everything is going to be okay with the characters they’ve become attached to. Also, I ascribe somewhat to the Navajo belief that past, present, and future all exist in the same moment.
That’s really powerful. What are you working on now?
It’s a sequel to Gateway, set in Jamaica. It’s a story of the Jews of Jamaica. It is an incredible, fascinating history. I never thought I’d become the chronicler of secret Jews in the New World, but here I am.
Is there any question you wish I’d asked?
Outside of my astrological sign (Taurus) or something about my dog (a Redbone coonhound), no. But I thank you for these insightful questions!