I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Eric Z. Weintraub's SOUTH OF SEPHARAD. This remarkable novel is set in 1492 Spain and deals with an understudied event in history: the expulsion of the Jews from Granada by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (yes, the same from the Christopher Columbus expedition!).
The novel follows Vidal, a Jewish physician, and his family as they make a difficult decision: do they convert to Catholicism, shedding their religion, or flee?
This novel was fabulous. I felt completely engrossed in the times and my heart beat rapidly at several part, especially the surgery scene. It's for sure a must-read, available for pre-order here. Learn more about Eric here.
Enjoy this spoiler-free Q&A!
1) How long have you been writing, and at what point did you decide you wanted to take on novel writing?
I’ve been writing for 21 years – since I was teenager. I never seriously attempted to publish anything for the first ten years, I was simply developing my craft and enjoying the process. But the concept of writing a novel always daunted me. “How could I possibly keep a reader interested for over 300 pages?” I always wondered. As a result, I wrote in pretty much every medium besides novels: short stories, novellas, scripts, etc.
I made a couple attempts at writing a novel in the past, but South of Sepharad was the first one I took seriously about completing. It was the first story that I felt necessitated that 300+ page count. The project simply couldn’t exist in any other medium.
2) Is South of Sepharad your first book?
South of Sepharad is my debut novel, but I did get a novella published in 2015. It’s called Dreams of an American Exile. It takes place in the present day, but tackles many of the same themes I would further develop in South of Sepharad, including expulsion and identity. Sadly, the press who published the novella went out of business during Covid and the book is now out of print.
3) How did you come across this piece of history?
Despite being raised in a Jewish household and going to Hebrew School, I never heard the story of the 1492 Expulsion of the Jews from Spain until I was 25 years old.
My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) was studying abroad in Granada, Spain and I went to visit her for the holidays. We were exploring the city on January 2, 2016 when we passed a parade on the main street. I asked what they were celebrating and she said, “They’re celebrating the end of the Reconquest, when Isabella and Ferdinand ended Muslim rule in Spain.” She went on to tell me that the Spanish went on to expel the Jews and Muslims from Spain as a consequence of the Reconquest. This tragic story that I knew nothing about captivated my imagination and overtime I grew interested in retelling this true event as a novel.
4) While this book is about a real historical event, your characters are fictional. Tell us about how you developed these characters from initial idea until final edits.
Early on, I knew I wanted to write this novel from the perspective of a “commoner,” someone caught up in events bigger than themselves - not royalty or someone with influence. Soon after, I settled on the idea of a father attempting to lead his family out of Spain. I feel an occupation can reveal a lot about a character, so I made him a doctor because it is a trade that exists in 1492 and now that I have close working familiarity with.
I started drafting with only the above in mind and allowed myself the time to find the character on the page as the story went along. It took a couple of drafts to flesh out Vidal (the father), but once I realized he was a character who wants to escape Spain and persecution no matter the dangers that leaving poses, the character began to take shape.
For the supporting characters, my jumping off point was to have their wants and attitudes challenge Vidal’s in some way. For example, his wife Bonadonna thinks it’s much safer to stay and convert. His oldest daughter Catalina, who converted to Catholicism for marriage, thinks her father can still live a happy life as a convert. The differing values of these characters started to create conflict. As a result, individual personalities between the characters emerged.
Probably the most difficult character to get right was Bonadonna, as her differing values with Vidal could sometimes lead her to sounding mean or abrasive when they argued. It was actually my editor, Colin, who suggested she needed to be kinder. Once I realized Bonadonna’s motivation to stay in Spain was to keep her children safe, and not to fight with her husband, I was able to rewrite her as the three-dimensional character I’d been striving to discover.
5) You’re a medical writer by trade, and your main character Vidal is a doctor in 1492. How difficult was it to turn off your modern medical brain to allow accuracy for 15th century medicine?
This was actually easier for me than it might sound. Since I’m not a doctor, I’m always taking complex medical concepts and procedures at work and figuring out how to write and explain them in lay terms. Researching medicine in 1492 felt no different than researching a new subspeciality.
The biggest difficulty was figuring out how procedures differed. For example, there is a scene late in the book where Vidal performs a surgery. “But how would he do this before the discovery of anesthesia?” I wondered. Through research, I learned that physicians used opium to help patients endure the pain. This was largely how I researched medieval medicine. Vidal would need to treat someone’s ailments, and I’d figure out how doctors approached that ailment in 1492.
In addition to online research, I regularly consulted a book called, Medieval Medicine: The Art of Healing from Head to Toe by Luke E. Demaitre to better understand how physicians worked in the 1400s.
6) Your settings are quite descriptive. Which place did you enjoy writing about the most?
I enjoyed writing about Granada the most because I’ve spent the most time there. The sprawling Alhambra structure, the narrow alleyways of the Albayzin, the beauty of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains … the list goes on. Despite Granada’s tragic past, I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I can’t help but write about it from a place of affection and nostalgia.
7) Religion plays a huge part in South of Sepharad. How do you relate this to your own personal life? How do you hope readers relate?
The big thematic question of this novel is, "If you had to choose between your beliefs and your home, which would you choose?" I think it's an interesting question for the reader to pose to themselves and one I posed to myself often while writing this book. Would I really give up everything--my home, my friends, my job, my life savings, etc--so I could practice my faith in another country? On the other hand, why would I want to remain in a country so intolerant of who I was? It's a horrible decision to have to make, and even though Vidal chooses to leave, historically a lot of Jews chose to remain in Spain as converts. And this isn't an isolated event. Throughout history, all over the world and even today, people of all faiths have been forced to make decisions like this. My hope is readers will contemplate which choice they'd make in this circumstance and why situations like this keep repeating themselves.
8) You said in the author notes that a wedding scene was particularly hard to research. What other pieces of the novel were difficult to research?
The most difficult parts of the novel to research were the nitty-gritty little details, things so small that they’re easy to overlook.
For example, in my first draft of that wedding scene you mentioned, I described the bride and groom as being married under a chuppah, a canopy that is a staple of Jewish weddings around the world. Later on, I was reading a book about Jewish weddings to prepare for my own wedding (nothing to do with writing this book) when I came upon the fact that the chuppah wasn’t introduced into Jewish weddings until 16th century Poland. It never would’ve been at this wedding in 1492 Spain! I rewrote the scene without the chuppah, but it worried me because this was one of those little details I never would’ve thought to research in a million years. I was just lucky that I happened upon the fact.
This became a persistent challenge throughout the novel. I would write details never expecting they could possibly be wrong, only realizing later I included an anachronism. Toward the end of editing, I went through all my facts and sources again. If anything stuck out as remotely incorrect in the manuscript, I fixed it or made sure I had a source.
I know it may sound neurotic to obsess over these little details. I’m never going to catch everything and, ultimately, who cares if there’s an anachronism or two in the novel? But I make the extra effort because I want the reader to trust they’re in good hands.
9) Was there anything cut from the novel that you could share?
The final version of the novel is told from the subjective viewpoints of Vidal and Catalina. But in my first draft of the novel, I actually wrote chapters from the viewpoints of each member of Vidal’s family. His wife and three other children all had sections told from their perspectives.
While this approach might have produced a good scene here and there, I decided not to pursue this route because it created redundancies and hurt the pacing. In the end, most of these scenes were rewritten to be told from Vidal’s perspective.
10) What’s next for you? Any more books on the horizon?
I’m on the second draft of a new novel. It’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age story set in present day Los Angeles. It’s a big step out of my comfort zone to write a personal story, but it felt like the next project ready to be told. But I’m not saying goodbye to the historical fiction genre. I plan to write more historical novels in the future.