Interview with Nomi Eve

[img_assist|nid=11593|title=Henna House|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=100]In 2001, Nomi Eve’s first novel, The Family Orchard. was published by Alfred Knopf with a print run of 100,000. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. It also received positive reviews from the New York Times, Newsday and Time magazine. Her second novel, Henna House, is being published by Scribner in August. Set in Yemen in the 1920s, it tells the story of a character named Adela and the passions and trials of the Jewish community in Yemen. An excerpt from the novel can be previewed at Eve, 46, is a lecturer in the creative-writing program at Bryn Mawr College. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
 She spoke with Philadelphia Stories about her new novel, Henna House, out in August.

Your latest novel, Henna House, is set in the community of Yemenite Jews in the mid-twentieth century. What was the inspiration for it?

My father is from Israel.  A close cousin of his married a Yemenite woman.  She is like an aunt to me.  Her family lived through much of the history that I write about.  I grew up visiting her in her kitchen in Israel, eating her delicious food, listening to her wonderful stories.  She inspired me to write Henna House.

Did it take fourteen years to write?

After my first book, The Family Orchard, came out, I had three babies in four years!   I stayed home with my kids and only started writing again when our youngest went to kindergarten.  That was four years ago.  It took me two years to write Henna House.  It was bought by Scribners two years ago.  You do the math 🙂

I must confess I knew nothing about the history of henna and body art. What led you to these subjects?

Most people think of henna as a purely Indian tradition, but the Jews from the Arab lands have their own precious henna life cycle rituals.  The more I learned about the traditional Yemenite Jewish experience, the more I fell in love with their henna stories, henna rituals, and life-cycle ceremonies.
Based upon the selection I read, you have a good feel for bringing the past alive. I was quite taken by the Confiscator and the Orphan’s Decree. What is your process for bringing to life characters who lived in other times and cultures?

I always tell my students to write scenes, not summaries.  I try to posit my characters in vivid scenes — and I use dialogue and sensory writing to make people come alive. Also, when I write, I travel through time and space.  I’m actually there with my characters, long ago and far away.  My imagination makes it very vivid for me, and I hope for my readers as well.

How does teaching and raising a family fit in with the writing life?

When I first started to write again, I made myself an office on our third floor.  I was so happy with that little office, it was my own private space with all my books, my computer, my artifacts that inspire me to write.  But what happened is that I never would make it up there to that third floor.  My kids were always all over me, and it was impossible to climb up the stairs to my work.  I realized that I was deluded to think that my writing life was separate from my life as a mother.  I brought my computer down to our kitchen and started to write.  I found that I could write amidst the busy hubbub of our family.  Actually, I found that my children were an inspiration.  So, that’s how I work — in the midst of it all.  All these years later, my computer is still in our kitchen and if I’m writing while my kids are in the room they sometimes read over my shoulder or ask me about the people and places I am making up. 

What kind of novel is Henna House? How important are genre distinctions to you?

Henna House is historical fiction, but at its heart is a knot of thorny love stories.  Genre distinctions aren’t all that interesting to me when I am writing.  I don’t choose to write in any particular genre.  It’s only when a book is done and other people start talking about your book, that it seems to need to fit into some kind of category.

How does living in the Philadelphia area affect your writing?

I write about places that are very very far away, both temporarily and spatially.  Philadelphia nurtures me as a human being.  I live here, am raising my kids here, and love the city, but my art always comes from elsewhere.  I think its helpful for me to posit my fiction in other places.  It’s much easier for me to make things up if they aren’t right in front of my face.  Reality limits my creative process.  I’m a much better artist when the reality I’m fashioning doesn’t resemble my own.

Do you see yourself writing in any tradition? Can you name a few writers that have influenced you?

I am an eclectic reader.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Ann Patchette, Jeffrey Eugenides, are just a few of my literary heroes.

Has being a teacher affected your own writing?

Teaching forces me to be self aware as a writer.  As a writer, I have a metaphorical toolbox.  I use the tools in this toolbox to write my books.  As a teacher, I have to figure out how to make a box of invisible tools visible to my students.  In the process of doing this, I wrestle with thorny problems that trip me up in my own writing.  I become a better writer as a result, and I hope, a better teacher too.

You can meet Nomi Eve at Doylestown Books (16 South Main Street, Doylestown) on August 16 at 2:30pm and at Main Point Books (1041 West Lancaster Road, Bryn Mawr) on September 11.

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