The novel opens at the house of the turpentine sellers in Tadmor, Syria, in the year 643 AD. A blue-eyed orphan named Rayah studies her Koran while simultaneously feeling the first glimmerings of the power she inherited from her female ancestors, strong women who worshipped the goddess of the evening star, Al-Uzza, and led their tribes through the Arabian desert.
This is also the story of Rayah's mother, Sitt Sameh, who has hidden her true identity for too long; her grandmother, Bint Zura, a young woman who finds a sacred camel; and her great-grandmother, Umm Taghlib, who is cast out of her tribe for being a kahinah, or witch. Many of the era's women bear the names of their male relations, though they also have hidden names of their own. The male viewpoint is introduced via the tale of Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Prophet Muhammad's most famous general, who reveals his past history to a eunuch scribe and searches for a connection to his long-lost daughter, Sitt Sameh.
The Woman at the Well is a deep and involving multi-generational novel about a fascinating land in the midst of religious and cultural transformation. From the Kirkus review: "Chamberlin beautifully captures the depth of Rayah's awakening to her heritage, emotionally and spiritually... impeccable research and haunting, poetic language create a lush tale to be lingered over and savored."
The Woman at the Well was published in July by Epigraph Press at $27.00 in hardcover, $16.95 in trade paperback, or $9.99 as an e-book (378pp). Please read to the end for a giveaway opportunity, too.
You write that you spent thirty years working on The Woman at the Well. Why did you feel this was a story that needed to be told? How did the novel deepen or transform over this time?
Thirty years ago, no one had heard of Salman Rushdie. Kamran Pasha and Sherry Jones had not written their books about the women of early Islam. In fact, no one seemed to have Islam, the religion of close to a quarter of the world's population, on their radar screen. I have a rejection note (a yellow Post-It) I keep pinned above my computer that says, "Dear Ann, Why Islam? Thanks but no thanks." I did not think this ignorance was a good thing. I still don't.
After 9/11, my son got me to take Arabic classes with him at a local Muslim school. This is how I deal with crisis, with ignorance. I educate myself through my stories, and I wanted my question answered, "What were people thinking at the time of the Prophet Muhammad?" Not that I'm suggesting they were simple-minded people or anything. I never think people in the past were stupider than we are. Usually I think the opposite, when I get to know them. It's just that, such world-changing events cannot help but have affected people at that time to their very core. Like events to do with Islam have done in our time.
Recent events have deepened my story. So has the suggestion someone gave me "to tell the women's stories." Hard as it may be to believe, first drafts only had Khalid's version of the tale. I guess I thought there wasn't enough of women in the history even to reconstruct a tale. My astute critiquer was right, especially since that has been the course of my writing, to tell women's stories that are usually ignored. And there's plenty to work with, for a novelist.
If it's true that winners write the history, as Sitt Sameh tells Rayah (with gentle sarcasm, I felt) in the novel, how were you able to look beyond long-held traditions to learn the hidden stories of people from pre-Islamic Arabia?
There's quite a lot of interest in pre-Islamic Arabia among Arab historians, even though many would call it the Time of Ignorance and dismiss it. Like some young Americans would dismiss time before the computer as irrelevant. Victorians Brits who were trying to rule the place also had an interest. Especially since the publication in the 1970's of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook's radical rewriting called Hagarism, there's been a resurgence of interest in the West. Where did Muhammad come from, this time called Ignorance? All these historians were trying to answer that.
I had a very powerful experience during ten days I camped with the Bedouin in the Sinai (also during the 70s). I fell in love with these people and the way they deal with one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. When what we know of pre-Islamic history failed me, I fell back on the anthropology of the Bedouin.
I should also mention that the University of Utah Dr. Aziz Atiya Middle East Library, where I work part time, is one of the most important collections in the world, especially of early Islamic papyrus. I get to rub shoulders with scholars in this field every day, and I am indebted to them.
In the opening scene, Rayah discovers her power when she brings her young cousin back to life. This isn't your first instance of crossing historical fiction with elements of the fantastic. Why was it important for you to start the book this way? What can fantasy bring to historical fiction?
Rayah's arc is a struggle to decide what to do with her own power which goes back to her mothers in a world where the new religion is trying to supplant everything that went before, where Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets and his successors are trying to pull an ever-increasing empire in by the hearts and minds. This has always been a pivotal question for me having grown up in a Mormon world where the words haunting a young woman's mind were condemned as evil if they countered the words of a living prophet.
To my mind, a historical novelist fails to capture the period if that period believed in magic, jinn, fairies or whatever and this sort of stuff doesn't happen or couldn't happen to her characters. Passages in the Quran concerning jinn would indicate you couldn't be a good Muslim if you didn't believe in these beings of fire. Like the reader of certain passages in the Torah couldn't believe that book if he didn't believe in witches, and that they shouldn't be allowed to live.
Besides, I don't think you can sit around a campfire in a desert night or see a mirage shimmering across the horizon and not believe in powerful spirits.
Much of your fiction writing centers on the Middle East. How did your interest in this place develop?
My Mormon upbringing, again. I found I couldn't deal with our own prophets, patriarchy, polygamy and deserts. I was too close, my fiction "too bitter" as one critique said. Trying to understand my surroundings, I studied Hebrew. My first trip to the Holy Land full of pious zeal ran into those ten days in the Sinai, into Arabic and another far-from-perfect world built on idealism. So one book led to another as I stumbled into one fascinating corner after another on one trip after another.
The Woman at the Well has many memorable characters, both historical and fictional. Khalid ibn al-Walid will be the best known, yet for many Western readers, your novel may be the first introduction to him. How did you address this issue as you developed his character?
The ever-present struggle against the data dump. Clavell's Shogun remains a great example of how to introduce the modern reader to a strange world—drop a very modern, or at least more familiar, character into your strange world. Everything has to be explained to the stranger in a strange land. Without resorting to a time machine as part of the plot, I couldn't do that. Even a 7th-century Roman would have a world too strange and in need of explanation in need of explanation to my reader. Personally, I like the first-person narrative, and I like this bit I stumbled on where Khalid tells his tale to a scribe not of his world. And then the scribe gets to tell it to Rayah and her mother and her mother Sitt Sameh gets to put her own spin on it. So there are multiple chances to sneak in explanations.
The novel has several examples of parents and children who have lost their connections with one another - it's not your usual type of family story. Why did you choose this as one of your themes?
One of my tropes is that Islam—like most new religions (early Christianity, Protestantism, Mormonism) even non-religious movements like Marxism for example—began first as an attempt to pry apart the existing power structure—which meant a strong clan system. If you believe, you have a great excuse, even commandment, to leave your stifling family ties for this new community in the making. Islam went on to depend on government by trained slaves in the Mamluk and Ottoman empires, men ripped from all family. Khalid attempted this, but finds in old age his attempts are futile. He wishes for the family he neglected, and Islam in the form of his cousin Omar ibn al-Khattub the caliph and new/old strictures on women really hasn't escaped. The United States continues to have this tension between wanting a free individual, but then expecting family values unsupported by government to raise children, care for the sick and elderly, etc.
Besides, the novel is the narrative form for the individual alienated from the world, the hero on a quest away from home and family.
The scenario of a man meeting a woman at a well can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. What about this theme resonated with you?
Returning to sources of spiritual enlightenment. Every day. Like a woman has to go for water every day. And wells are few and far between in the desert. Knowledge of where they are and how to approach them is a matter of life and death.
Where did you first come across pre-Islamic poetry, and why has it captured your attention to such a degree?
Poetry still has a big place in Middle Eastern society, from Rumi on. A generally illiterate society that condemns representational art and which is so focused on the Holy Word would naturally resort to this art form. Early Muslim historians themselves took quite an interest in recording this poetry. Once they got over the beginning concerns that poets and poetry detracted from the Quran, they were interested in gleaning these snippets especially when they clarified the language of the Quran or Islam's rise. Any attempt to recreate pre-Islamic Arabia is dependent on these verses, and I found them early in my research. I want to cite several collections I depended on: AJ Arberry's Seven Odes, Charles Lyall's Translations of Ancient Arabic Poetry, and Michael Sells' Desert Tracings.
I've had people shrug and tell me, "Well, something must have been lost in translation," but to me the images evoke the world of the desert so powerfully. And the poet's usual format—we usually have only male poets' verses, although there are some women poets recorded—was to begin by evoking a lost love.
And for your chance to win a copy...
I'd like to thank Ann for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth. We have three copies of The Woman at the Well available for giveaway. To enter the contest, please leave a comment on this post (include your email if it's not in your profile or on your blog). This giveaway is open to all blog readers worldwide; deadline Friday, December 2nd.