The Rumpus Interview with Chanan Tigay
It takes a writer with a background like Chanan Tigay’s—son of a noted Bible scholar, professor of nonfiction, with a distinguished career in journalism and an MFA in fiction for good measure—to produce a book as thoroughly researched and readable as The Lost Book of Moses. His debut tells a story so incredible that it seems straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, one that includes treasure hunts in the Holy Land, forgeries that would make your mother blush, scandal, suicide, and an ancient copy of Deuteronomy gone missing for a hundred years.
At the center of that story is Moses Wilhelm Shapira, an enigmatic figure in late-19th century Jerusalem. Tigay goes to extraordinary lengths to reconstruct his subject’s fascinating life, a quest that becomes a story all its own: he flies to multiple continents, shows up unannounced on a complete stranger’s doorstep, and develops a rivalry with another would-be Shapira biographer, among other things. The result is a book with two hugely sympathetic and human characters: the maybe-forger who suffered an ignominious fate, and the writer who, a century later, developed an obsession with him and his vanished scrolls.
The Rumpus: The opening chapter of your book describes how you first heard of Moses Shapira, an autodidactic antiquities dealer in 1880s Jerusalem, the central figure of the book. At a family dinner, your father mentions a century-old controversy over an ancient copy of Deuteronomy Shapira found, which was later exposed as a forgery, ruining his life.
It’s been six years since that dinner, and you’ve spent much of that interval obsessing over this fascinating figure, who had been dead for more than a hundred years by the time you heard of him. One of the most impressive aspects of The Lost Book of Moses is the degree to which you humanize a man who didn’t leave you much to work with in terms of sources. What was that process like?
Chanan Tigay: I really appreciate your saying that. Making Shapira feel like an authentic, complicated, round human being—someone with positive and negative qualities, alternately respectful and pompous, honest and deceitful, loving and self-centered, brilliant and naïve, someone, in other words, who was altogether human, maybe too much so for one man to bear—was perhaps the biggest challenge in writing this book. Shapira was extremely famous, but only for a flash, and so he didn’t leave behind reams of documents and other source materials. There’s some—especially from the period in the summer of 1883 when he turned up in England with the Bible scrolls that would ultimately prove to be his undoing—but nothing like what, say, a presidential biographer might have to work with.
Of course, having an immense amount of material presents its own challenges. But taking what little I had and using it to build a living being on the page was hard. Not mining-copper-in-a-pit hard, but challenging. On the one hand, it required that I read every single document I could get my hands in extreme depth—by which I mean that I had to read it not just for content (facts, figures, names, dates, and the like) but with an eye toward understanding Shapira’s state of mind when he wrote it. Asking not just what did Shapira say, but why did he say it. On the other hand, when resources are limited, there’s always the temptation to use every last scrap of information you’ve uncovered, on the theory that if you include an endless litany of details, the character will gain depth. But then you start writing lines like, “It was during that trip that Shapira enjoyed his first avocado.” Well, who cares? So it’s a balancing act between doing a “deep dive,” as journalists like to say, and following that up with a judicious doling out of whatever you discovered underwater. One perfect detail beats five first-avocado details.
I should also say that I’m grateful that you, in particular, thought Shapira came off authentically, given that you do something similar in Son of a Gun, making your mother—who had passed away years before you wrote the book—come very much alive for your readers in the most believable way.
Rumpus: That’s nice of you to say, and points to another thing I wondered. I found the process of writing a book largely about another person to be deeply strange once it was over. As the writer, you sort of carry these people around with you for a few years, and then suddenly your portrayal of them is out there in the world, and readers are free to form their own opinions, many of which, in my experience, diverge from what you may have intended. Obviously, you’re in a different position from memoirists and other writers who portray their loved ones. You’ve written about a man you never met, who’s been dead for a century, and whose reputation was ruined by the time he died, anyway. But I wonder if you feel any of that same sense of responsibility, knowing that a lot of people will only know Moses Shapira from your portrayal of him.
Tigay: Yes, I do. Absolutely. Whether or not Shapira was a fraud, history has treated him harshly—reduced him to a pithy label: “master forger.” I think that’s unfair. This man was so much more than that: he was a father and a husband, a successful businessman, a dealer in unquestionably authentic, rare, and often hard-to-obtain antiquities, a scholar, an explorer—generally speaking, a genius. As a man, he was also endlessly complicated. Even if it were accurate, “master forger” is so reductive as to be pointless. And given that this book is likely to be the first, and maybe last, readers hear of Shapira, I did see it as my responsibility to portray him in all of his complexity.
Rumpus: I liked Moses so much as a character, and found myself rooting for him despite the fact that we learn his sad fate in the opening pages. Somehow I empathized with him more because I knew from the beginning he was this tragic figure. One of the hardest things about writing a book, especially a first book, and perhaps especially in nonfiction, is figuring out how to manage information: what you reveal, when, and how that affects the reading experience. I admired your choice not to withhold Moses’s death for the sake of manufacturing tension. It seemed like a bold choice. Can you talk about that decision to reveal how his story ends at the very beginning of the book?
Tigay: You’ve put your finger on one of the other major challenges I faced in writing this book: when and how to dole out information about the main character’s life. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the historical drama of Shapira’s life and death, and my own five-year hunt for a controversial Bible scroll whose outing as a fraud (though, it turns out, it might have been real) led directly to Shapira’s death. On the one hand, I didn’t want to give away too much of the story up front—I wanted readers to be surprised throughout by the crazy twists and turns, the same way I was surprised as I did the research. On the other hand, for readers to understand and care about my own search for these Bible scrolls, they needed to know certain information early on, namely that they had been debunked as fakes in the late 19th century and, later, had disappeared mysteriously.
If I were writing a straight book of historical nonfiction, or a novel, I probably would have let the reader know about the fraud accusations at just the moment they actually emerged in the timeline. But because the history was interspersed with my quest, I had to spill some of the beans before that. Once I figured out how that worked, the next decision was exactly how many beans to spill. I could say that the scrolls were labeled as frauds, but I didn’t need to explain right away exactly how or why. Same with his death—I felt that letting readers know early on that Shapira ended up dying over this whole affair really upped the stakes. What higher stakes are there than death? But I left the specifics until later on in hopes readers would be enticed by what they read, and would then want to read on to figure out how everything actually unraveled.
Rumpus: I’m glad you said that bit about it not being a straightforward book of historical nonfiction. I was struck by how you used your personal, present-day story of searching for the scrolls. You seem to use the narrative self to serve the historical story, which is one reason why the personal story never feels the least bit self-indulgent. You’re an experienced and widely published journalist, but you also teach in an MFA program, so you sort of straddle two different writing worlds, in terms of how they feel about the role of the writer in a story. How did you decide on the role you would play in this story? Did it change or evolve in the writing and revision processes? In a larger sense, what do you think the role of the narrator is in a work of nonfiction?
Tigay: It’s funny—some reviewers and interviewers have referred to the book as historical nonfiction-cum-memoir, or something along those lines. The idea that the book was in any way a “memoir” never once occurred to me as I was writing it. Maybe that was a mental block; I came up in the world as a reporter, and the idea of writing about myself was verboten. I’m still not really comfortable with it. Or maybe the issue was, as you kindly say, that I didn’t see even the sections about my own hunt for this Bible as being about me. They were there only inasmuch as they shed light on Shapira and his scrolls—how they became famous, were dismissed as frauds, disappeared, and then were—maybe—vindicated.
You’ve got me thinking back to the proposal I wrote for the book, which focused almost entirely on Shapira and his story, and included in the idea of my hunting for the document only as an afterthought. That’s how I saw it at the time. I had no idea how that was going to go, and I didn’t want to oversell it. Then I remember meeting the publisher shortly after the book was sold, and the first thing he said to me when I sat down across from him was, do you think you’re going to find them? It was only then that I began to realize that I was going to have to include myself more than I’d wanted or expected to.
Rumpus: You probably saw this question coming, and I hate how inevitable it seems at this point when discussing so-called creative nonfiction, but what are your thoughts on the role of truth? What’s your responsibility to it as a writer, and what do you feel as if a reader should be able to expect or assume? This is an exhaustively researched book, one that seems to synthesize the best aspects of journalism and narrative nonfiction, two fields you know quite well, and whose dominant discussions about accuracy and truth seem to me quite different. And the story you tell hinges on questions of authenticity and truth: are these documents real? How do we know? Can we? I’m curious what sort of decisions you found yourself making in the writing process as far as how you approached the question of truth, and how you feel about that now.
Tigay: This one might take a minute! Clearly there’s a distinction between journalism and creative nonfiction—and that difference has to do with several things, including (but not limited to) storytelling techniques, structure, and the gray area between fact and truth. Because my background is in journalism, I’m partial to facts over what some people call a story’s or a character’s “emotional truth.” For me, the emotional truth can only be arrived at through an examination of the facts at hand. Scenes ought not be invented, for example, to serve what the writer believes to be the truth. Those ends, in other words, don’t justify the means.
Now, a joke: A novelist and a nonfiction writer walk into a bar. The novelist spots the nonfiction writer in the corner and pulls him aside. “I read your book,” she tells him, taking his arm. “Marvelous. It felt like a novel.”
Ok, it’s not really a joke, but most nonfiction writers I know have received this feedback at some point. The novelist doesn’t specify whether the nonfiction writer’s book had reminded her of a good novel or a bad novel, but that’s not the point. The point, rather, is that likening a book of nonfiction to a novel—any novel—is, by definition, good. Nonfiction writers are as vain as fiction writers, and, in any event, many of them secretly endorse the premise, so this compliment—backhanded though it surely is—is much appreciated. After all, who’s ever stroked a novelist’s ego by announcing that her book was so marvelous that it felt like a work of nonfiction?
Why is this? Are novels inherently better than nonfiction books? The pinnacle of literary achievement? The foreign art film to nonfiction’s bromance? Some novels are better than some nonfiction, to be sure. Probe their characters’ emotional lives more thoroughly. But what of Sebastian Junger’s War? Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford? Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers? And your book, Son of a Gun, is right up there. These are all soaring literary works—important, resonant, lyrical—and they happen to be true. And still they are shunted into a category (nonfiction) defined not by what they are, but by what they are not.
I think the answer lies in the assumption that nonfiction is simply easier—that where fiction requires the kind of endless creativity and constant invention possessed only by the exquisitely gifted, the nonfiction writer has the facts at hand. All he’s got to do is write them down. There’s something to this, but it’s not the whole truth.
Because fiction does not simply require endless invention, it allows for it. When a fictional character is in a jam, the writer can free him—or keep him locked up, whatever she chooses—in the most satisfying way she can dream up. The possibilities are endless. Of course, all that freedom presents its own difficulties: if the options are infinite, how to choose just one?
But in writing nonfiction, the writer is limited by a set of circumscribed facts. Whatever happened—exciting, boring, or in between—happened. There’s no getting around it. And so it is the writer’s job to uncover whatever materials are available and to fashion them into the most interesting possible tale. Sometimes—in the case of a presidential biographer, let’s say—that means sifting through a building full of documents, recordings, and photographs, and selecting only the most interesting, telling, or relevant information to include. Since a biography cannot run to 12,000 pages (Norwegian autofictionalists excluded), the rest of the information—even some of the good stuff—must be discarded. A novelist conjures her stories from within—inventing, creating, shaping lived experience into a grand statue that earlier existed only in her mind. The nonfiction writer enters the room when that statue has been knocked off its pedestal and shattered, collecting the pieces still large enough to grip and puzzling them back together into something different but still, somehow, beautiful.
Of course, for me, even that rebuilding process involved interpreting what I read—which meant making judgment calls, which meant imposing my own interpretations (and trying to acknowledge that they were just that), which meant my version was one of many possible versions, which meant that calling a work of nonfiction “nonfiction” isn’t so airtight in any case.
Another joke: A homeless man approaches an old Jewish woman and says, “Lady, help. I haven’t eaten in a week.” She gently takes the man’s hand, looks him dead in the eye, and says, “Force yourself.” That’s how I felt writing this book: faced with a dearth of materials that spoke to Shapira’s inner life, I had to force myself at every turn to use only the best information I had, not to dump data in a way that would prove I’d done my research—even as it murdered whatever narrative momentum I had managed to build.
This was particularly true of my ace in the hole. Shapira’s letters said little explicitly about his emotional life. He apparently kept a diary—but that, sadly, is long gone. The tape recorder wasn’t invented until nearly half a century after Shapira died, penniless and alone in a seedy Rotterdam hotel. But I did have access to one document that spoke to him not strictly as a businessman but as a man: a novel, written by his daughter and published in France in 1919. Maria Shapira (who became famous writing under the nom de plume Myriam Harry) called The Little Daughter of Jerusalem a “story of my childhood and my sorrows.” It was certainly that—cross referencing details, incidents, and characters from the book with some of the documents I turned up, it became clear that much of what she’d called fiction was, in fact, autobiography. But something else was clear, too: some of what she’d called fiction was, in fact, fiction. I was desperate to give this man an inner life like the one she’d given him, but had to be careful to use only the information I could be reasonably certain was true. Even what little information I had on Shapira’s emotional life was fraught.
Rumpus: I was hoping to shift gears a little with my last question. A while ago, I interviewed the writer Molly Antopol about her superb story collection, The UnAmericans. She’s currently a fellow at Harvard, and her book won the New York Public Library’s prestigious Young Lions Award, among many other accolades. She’s also your wife. I rarely see the male half of author couples asked this question: What’s it like to be married to such a great and acclaimed writer?
I kid, I kid. Sometimes people ask how two writers can possibly live together. I sometimes wonder how writers can live with anyone but another writer. We understand what it takes to write a book. We understand when one of us needs to sit alone for hours in a room. Or when one of us suddenly drifts off, mid-conversation, into some far-off world. Or why after a question about the third-person-limited things might suddenly get steamy. As to Molly’s acclaim, I could not possibly be more proud. She’s my favorite writer (after the entire staff of Veep).
Author photograph © Molly Antopol.