Some authors cite a transformative experience that inspired a work of fiction. For those writers, an epiphany pointed the way to the subject they felt destined to engage in short stories or a novel. For Frances Sherwood, fiction has had the opposite effect. Twice now she's written novels that, to her immense surprise, have changed the way she lives and looks at the world.
"I become what I write, not the other way around," Sherwood tells PW in a phone conversation from her home in South Bend, Ind., where she teaches journalism and creative writing at the University of Indiana. Before she wrote Vindication, her acclaimed, NBCC-finalist fictionalized life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Sherwood says she was not a feminist. "Mary Wollstonecraft converted me."
If Wollstonecraft seems a natural subject for a female academic teaching writing, the golem—the central character of her latest novel, The Book of Splendor—was clearly a stretch. Sherwood says she was at a writer's conference in Prague in 1995 when the idea of setting a novel in 17th-century Prague occurred to her. "I knew the legend of the golem, of course," she says. But she never suspected that her research into the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical text, would lead to a spiritual conversion. Nominally Jewish but not raised religiously, Sherwood's five years of research about the Jewish community of Prague reaffirmed her connection with her paternal heritage. Today she is trying to live as an observant reform Jew, learning Hebrew and discovering traditional rituals. "When I started, I never had any idea that the book would relate to my life. It was only later that I made the personal connections."
Research for the book also included a thorough grounding in the details of 17th-century daily life and in the baroque, intrigue-ridden court of Emperor Rudolph II. Looking back, she expresses relief that the process was gradual. "I never woke up one day and considered the entire concept. I would have been terrified. One thing just led to another, and I sort of backed into it. I had to educate myself from the ground up."
Like the golem, a creature created out of mud and prayer, the 17th-century society Sherwood depicts is a mixture of the base and the sublime, crude poverty and tainted luxury. There's a sense of tension between the city and the court, a chasm between spirituality and decadence. Rudolph is demented, and the citizens of Prague are subject to his tyrannical whims. Sherwood acknowledges that she grants Rudolph more comic moments than perhaps occurred in real life. "It's a book that plays free with history and tradition, legends, magic and characters," she says. "It's a kind of fairy tale, but it's very contemporary in the concept of the golem as a manmade machine that acquires power."
Her iconoclastic conception of the golem, named Yossel, is bound to inspire controversy, Sherwood admits. She portrays him as a sensitive creature with complex thoughts, a sense of history and a strong sex drive. "I've always had a great sympathy for monsters like Quasimodo and King Kong," Sherwood says. "I feel a pang of sadness for them, and some sense of identification. I wanted to make the golem a sympathetic character. Instead of turning the frog into a prince, I wanted to make the frog and the prince the same creature. Other interpretations of the golem make him a political metaphor, but that was not my intention."
It's Emperor Rudolph's search for the secret of eternal life that leads him to Rabbi Loew, the golem's creator. Meanwhile, Rudolph maintains a coterie of scientists to try to discover the secret formula through alchemy. Real-life British alchemists Dr. John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly were actually brought to the Hapsburg court to create gold, but in the novel they become part of Rudolph's quest to acquire immortality. Two other court residents, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, were on hand to make mathematical and astronomical predictions. Sherwood's intention was to create an ensemble that would reflect the passions and the dangers of the age.
Sherwood, who was born in 1940, refers to herself as "not a young person, but a young writer." She was a teacher for many years before she published her first book, the short story collection Everything You've Heard Is True, in 1989. Vindication followed in 1993. Her short story, "Basil the Dog," a haunting fable set in Trinidad that was included in The Best American Short Stories 2000, was inspired by her years in the West Indies, when she was married to her second husband. The names of their children of that marriage suggest Sherwood's fervent romanticism. Her twin sons are called Leander and Lark (from Shelley's poem); her daughter is Ceres. She has recently remarried, to a photographer, who lives with her in South Bend, a location far from the literary scene, which causes her some regret. "I have these visions of going to cocktail parties and making contacts in New York," she says. "On the other hand, there are few distractions." Living in the Middle West was no impediment to finding her agent, Lucy Childs, who placed Vindication at FSG and The Book of Splendor at Norton, where her editor is Jill Bialosky.
"Being a writer is a perilous activity," Sherwood says, her normally tremulous voice rising into treble key. "But I like history and I like taking chances. Maybe Yossel, who is larger than life, is an extraordinary man, an extension of humanity. Perhaps he is the future. We'll see what happens to my robot now."