Episode 48: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. Young Adult author Gail Carson Levine is famous for writing classic fairy tales with a modern twist—especially her best-selling novel Ella Enchanted. But her newest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, takes readers back to a true historical time and place—the decade leading up to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The main character, Paloma, or Loma, begins the book as a ten-year-old girl growing up in a prominent Jewish family in Central Spain. It’s a tenuous time. Jews are being scapegoated for the Black Plague, taxed out of economic viability, and threatened with torture and sometimes death. Loma watches as fellow Jews are coerced into converting to Christianity. Loma’s family is in a unique position. Her grandfather has a special, though tense, relationship with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and Loma finds herself at the center of events that determine the Jewish community’s future. I talked with Gail Carson Levine about how she did the research for the book, and how she created her main character, Loma.
Gail Carson-Levine: I did a lot of reading before I started writing. And so I, I wanted her to be in a prominent family so she would have a chance to see what was going on. And, um, they’re financiers, which is based on the family. Her grandfather is based very loosely on Isaac Abravanow who was a philosopher and a financier and the financier side, um, I would think had to be very, very good at math. And, uh, coincidentally, both of my parents were fabulous at math, which they did not sadly pass along to their children. And, but I thought I would give that to Loma. And that would be one of the things that would attract her grandfather and, and it becomes kind of a mechanism that helps her cope with the stresses of being a child in such a stressed environment. Her family, there were family stresses, and then the world that she lives in is tough. So she counts compulsively. You know, it's my job to make things hard for my characters. So I gave her something that would help her and also be challenging too. And then I wanted her to grow into her toughness. At the beginning, she kind of shrinks away from discord and later on, she has to really deal with it. I didn't know her all that well when I started writing, but I wanted very much for her not to be a modern girl because as I read, it more and more seemed to me that, um, the modern idea of self wasn't there at that time. This is the middle ages and people had much less freedom of action.
Nahanni: Especially women, right?
Gail: Especially women, but men too. I mean, you know, you'd, if your father was a furrier you’d be a furrier. If you were a male... few people ever traveled more than a couple of miles from where they were born, that applies to Christians and Jews. Religion was utterly salient for most people, not all, but most people. And also, mortality was such a constant. You could expect to die at eight as much as that seventy. So, you know, it wasn't the same kind of life expectancy. So that had to always be in mind. And so I wanted a child who, a character who would be going with the life that she was born into. And so her goals were very traditional.
Nahanni: Right. She wants to do what her older sisters have done and sort of what's expected of her: get married and have as many babies as possible.
Gail: Yeah. And she loves children.
Nahanni: So as you said, Paloma's family are financiers, um, I learned a new term, which is tax farmers.
Nahanni: So that sounds like it's a real role that Jews had during the time?
Gail: Yeah. Yeah. Um, and actually in some parts of the world, it still exists. The way that it works is that the King and Queen and I think nobles too, and the church, needed to know what their income was going to be. So, um, they would grant people and it wasn't only Jews, um, tax farming, and they would collect the taxes and turn over, um, an amount that the monarchs would expect. And they'd keep the difference. If they came up short though, they'd also take the loss. So there was, it was risky.
Nahanni: Right, so they're essentially paying the taxes up front, no matter what they're able to collect.
Nahanni: Loma’s grandfather, um, is also constantly paying off King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in order to keep certain Jewish communities in Spain secure either keep them from being forcibly converted or in one case, buying a whole town back out of enslavement.
Gail: Yeah. Um, as I was reading, I was just astonished. I kept saying it's all about the money. It's all about the money. And the Jews of Spain were considered the property of the monarchs. And that was true all over Europe, except there were very few Jews in other parts of Europe. For example, their taxes went straight to the monarchs. Whereas if you lived in a town, if you were Christian, it went to the town, it went to a noble, your taxes went to the church. But the Jews’ tax went straight to the monarchs and they were taxed more than anybody else. And they were taxed out of economic viability. And that made the expulsion easier. If they had been more valuable, it probably wouldn't have happened then.
Nahanni: Paloma’s grandfather ends up bringing Paloma with him on all of his journeys to communicate with the King and Queen and to meet with other rulers. And she, at first, as you said, she's, she sort of has the sense of excitement about these adventures, but she's also very resentful at being taken away from home. She's got so much ambivalence about it. How did you decide to write the story that way, that you know, that she would be the one to hold on to sort of traditional gender roles?
Gail: Well, again, I didn't want to make her modern. You know, in my book, Ella Enchanted, the main character’s cursed with obedience, and she's, in attitude, very modern. So she resists, and she fights it and all that. And I didn't want to write a girl who would do that. That's kinda how I came to it.
Nahanni: So we get the sense through Paloma. This very vivid sense of Jews, just not being safe when they leave their neighborhood and of the Christian world being against them, trying to convert them, sometimes under, under threat of death. I'm wondering what it was like for you to write about this world of Christians as adversaries when you're writing a young adult novel for an American audience, which I expect is largely a Christian audience.
Gail: Yeah. And they were pre-modern too. Um, there have been a lot of comments about how this is just Catholics who behave that way. Interesting. But I don't think Catholics behave that way today. This is pre-modern. I worry about everything when I write. And that was one of the things I worried about.
Nahanni: What were you worried about?
Gail: You know, that people would be distressed at this portrayal and maybe not be sure I was being fair, you know, was I being balanced? Um, and I, you know, I can't swear I was being fair. I was giving... I'm telling a story that takes place in a Jewish context. So, um, most of the sources that I read were Jewish sources.
Nahanni: What do you think is valuable about bringing that period of history to life now?
Gail: Well, I was thinking a little bit about refugees. The way refugees have been treated lately. I mean, the book ends with the expulsion, but the worst was after the expulsion. I do have what happens to, um, one of Loma’s nieces on the way out. So leaving Spain was very dangerous. When Loma’s ship heads for Naples, the, um, the refusal of all those ports to let the Jews in to let them get supplies was that's true. And when they showed up in Naples, they were sick and the King of Naples, strangely enough, let them in anyway. Then they were able to stay in Naples, um, for at maximum and about 45 years and then they had to move. So that, that's what happened to my family. So, um, the plight of refugees was really on my mind.
Nahanni: You mentioned that the fear of death sort of being ever present, and, um, the book actually opens with Paloma narrowly surviving the Plague and waking up from her, from her sick bed to learn that her grandmother and three of her siblings have died. And, you know, I, I read this at the very beginning of lockdown after, you know, during the coronavirus and it was very, it was really eerie to open a book and start reading about that time period. Um, And the level of detail that you go into in this book is just remarkable. And one of the things that really jumped out at me, especially, you know, as you write that they're all living in fear of the Plague. You write about food a lot, and people sitting next to each other at the table. Eating from the same bowl, even people who are, you know, from different households will sit and eat from the same bowl. And I was reading this in the weeks when we were still wiping down all our groceries. And I read that and I was just like, “No, don't, don't do it!” So did they really do it?
Gail: Yeah, that was general practice in the Middle Ages.
Nahanni: That's amazing. I mean, obviously they didn't have germ theory, so they weren't worried about it. Um, it made me wonder if we’ll someday look back on shaking hands with strangers and think how could we ever have done that?
Gail: Yeah. Well, I hope not.
Nahanni: I know, I know.
Gail: But I'm not sure it was fear of death. I think there may have been an acceptance. I mean, nobody, you know, they didn't want to die, but an understanding of death and, and just a really different, you have to live your life differently. I would think.
Nahanni: I mean, she certainly grieves for her sister, but for somebody so young to have so much experience with death all around her is very, it's very different from the way most of us grew up.
Gail: How lucky we usually are.
Nahanni: Yes. Can we talk about the food a little bit, because she loves eating and she also loves to cook and there are so many great descriptions of food being prepared, you know, in their big kitchen for so many people. Where did you do the research for that?
Gail: Well, my cousin gave me a, told me about a book called A Taste of Honey. I'm sure I mentioned it. And, um, it was compiled by two historians from records of the inquisition. Yeah. Um, because people would inform, generally conversos, uh, because of their dietary practices. So if they didn't eat fish on Friday, that would be noted. If they used a lot of garlic that would be noted, and garlic by itself isn't kosher or not kosher, but apparently the cooking used it a lot.
Nahanni: Right. It's just evidence of them holding on to their traditions when they weren't supposed to be.
Gail: Yeah. Not eating pork.
Nahanni: Right. And one of the really very interesting scenes is when Loma is sitting at the Duke's table with her father and grandfather, and they're presented with food and she doesn't know whether she's supposed to eat it or not. And then her grandfather eats and she's sort of shocked. But it's obviously for self preservation.
Gail: Yeah. Yeah.
Nahanni: So you mentioned Ella Enchanted and I'm just wondering how it feels to you… does it feel different to create such a Jewish character and a Jewish story than it did to create a story like Ella Enchanted? How, how, how different is that? How is that? And how did you come to want to create a story so rooted in Jewish history?
Gail: My father didn't talk about his own childhood. He was separated from his Sephardic heritage by growing up in an Ashkenazi orphanage and in some ways, my father just in himself was a cipher. He was, he was delightful. He was joyous. But, um, but he didn't talk about it. He never talked about the orphanage, which must've been awful. And I think the gaps, I was very drawn to the gaps. And have always wanted a closeness to him that, um, that I didn't get. So, I think I look for him in these stories. But then, you know, the writer in me takes over. So I wanted to pull it all together and make it into something coherent. And, um, I'm not religious, but I’m certainly Jewish and have what I think of as a Jewish sensibility. So a lot of it was there for me.
Nahanni: Why is it called A Ceiling Made of Eggshells?
Gail: Well, I just, you know, I keep looking for the source of this cause I read it somewhere, but I came across, um, this kind of legend that King Solomon that he wanted a new wife and, um, she wanted a ceiling made of eggshells or she wouldn't marry him. So I was charmed by the idea of a ceiling made of eggshells. And so I gave it as a story to the grandmother to tell to Loma. And then, um, casting about for a title, because titles are very often a misery to my publisher, the marketers at my publisher, don't like anything, come up with them. I'm banging my head against the wall and my editor is too. But this time I saw that could be a title. And, um, I told my editor, who loved it, and she just asked me to punch it up a little bit in the text to make it more significant. And that was easily done. So, um, the grandmother says that the Jews in Spain are as improbable and wonderful as a ceiling made of eggshells.
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. You’ll find Gail Carson Levin’s new book A Ceiling Made of Eggshells on JWA’s fall book club list. Special thanks to Sarah Ventre for help producing this episode. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts…. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 48: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-48-ceiling-made-eggshells/transcript>.