Babylon: A Novel of Jewish Captivity, Michelle Cameron’s latest story, is a foray into lesser-known epochs of Jewish history, with strong, resilient characters, sweeping locations, and themes that resonate for today’s reader. This multi-generational biblical saga tells the story of Sarah, captured and exiled to Babylon as a teenager, when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army conquers Judea, chronicling how she and her family survive the captivity. The novel also tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s ambitious children: their prescient dreams, palace intrigues, and even regicide.
Babylon is Cameron’s fourth novel, and a fifth, Napoleon’s Mirage, a sequel to Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2024.
Karen Lewis Jackson spoke with Cameron about the writing school that she runs, the challenges of writing Babylon, and how she managed to complete her earlier novels while working full-time and raising two boys. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Karen Lewis Jackson: The Writers Circle, your writing school, has helped launch and encourage many new writers’ careers, and now has a broader reach, with the advent of virtual classes. Tell me about how you got started with it.
Michelle Cameron: For many years, I worked as a corporate writer, but I always wanted to write fiction. When The Fruit of Her Hands came out (Cameron’s first historical novel), I was asked by Peter Murphy to teach Beginning Your Novel at his Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway during a weekend conference. I fell in love with teaching writing, but I had no writing degree. I started networking and connected with Judith Lindbergh, who had been running The Writers Circle for a year, pretty much as a one-woman show, so I joined her. I was still working full-time, and my boss was fairly flexible. But then I got laid off and could concentrate on The Writers Circle full-time.
Since that point, we’ve grown a lot. We invited other instructors, particularly for genres we didn’t necessarily know, such as nonfiction, memoir, or poetry.
KLJ: You wrote in your bio that you are “inordinately proud” of your two sons. What are they doing right now? How old were your children when you wrote In The Shadow of the Globe?
MC: Before In the Shadow of the Globe, I wrote three practice novels, one of which I thought would get published, a young adult book about William Shakespeare and the Globe Theater. But when I saw Shakespeare In Love, I mistakenly said, “Oh God, they’ve stolen my idea!” I put the manuscript aside and said, “With everything I’ve got going on—the kids were in elementary and middle school—forget it!” Tried, failed, moved on.
But then my youngest, Alex, started writing. He’s a phenomenal writer. He works at Tor/Forge for McMillan now, and he wrote for the love of it. When he went off to summer camp, we cleaned out his room, and we found all these poems, stories, and puzzles that he wrote and never bothered to show us.
I saw his joy in writing and said, “Okay, I’m just going to write for me.” Having done all the research for the Shakespeare YA book, I pulled all of those poems together, and that became In the Shadow of the Globe. Beyond the Ghetto Gates is dedicated to Alex, and I call him my muse.
My older boy, Geoff, he’s a computer engineer and a very different kid. He’s done phenomenally well in his field, but he’s not necessarily a writer. When I wrote Beyond the Ghetto Gates, I gave my heroine a passion for mathematics, like Geoff.
KLJ: How did you find time as a working mom to write and complete In the Shadow of the Globe and The Fruit of Her Hands?
MC: With In the Shadow of the Globe, I was busier, I would sit in the karate dojo or out in the ballfield, writing. I hid in my car when they wrestled. Poetry is short, and you can write a poem, you can refine it a few times. I was just compiling a bunch of poetry at that point. So that part was easy.
My kids were in middle and high school when I started writing an actual novel and it got harder. The Fruit of Her Hands was about a third of the way done when I took a class. On the last day, the facilitator said, “What’s stopping you all from completing it?” I said, “I’ve got these kids . . . a full-time job, all the things at home. There’s just no time.” The facilitator literally changed my life when she said, “Alright, I have two questions for you: The first one is, how much do you want it? And the second one is, how early can you wake up?”
For five years, I got up at 4:30 in the morning and I finished The Fruit of Her Hands. I was able to find a publisher and started Babylon.
KLJ: She Writes Press published Beyond the Ghetto Gates and will publish Napoleon’s Mirage. What makes this publisher different, and what has your experience with them been like?
MC: With Beyond The Ghetto Gates, I had a wonderful agent who worked with me for a year on the book, and then she sent it out to publishers. She had big dreams for the book, but we got rejections. At the time, publishers of historical novels wanted what they called contemporary historic, which sounds like a complete oxymoron. We’re talking about Downton Abbey, World War I, World War II.
My agent said, “Sorry, I can’t sell this book.” I shared my woes on my blog, and a friend of mine told me about She Writes. I submitted it, and they accepted it.
She Writes is transparent in its approach. They allow you to contribute to the whole process of creating a cover. With Simon and Schuster, they said, ‘Here’s your cover.”
Similar to the larger publishers, She Writes distributes through the Ingram Publishing umbrella to bookstores. But you’re on your own to do marketing. The royalty structure is also different. You start getting money back right away, and more per book. But there’s no advance.
One drawback is you pay for their platform, which isn’t cheap. You also pay for the printing of your book. Now I can compare it to Wicked Son Press, which is publishing Babylon. As a smaller traditional publisher, they don’t give me an advance, but once the book earns out I make significantly more than I ever would make with a big publisher.
KLJ: Babylon is different from your earlier books in that there is a large group of viewpoint characters, a long multi-generational timeline, and it’s set in the five eighties BC. To go so far back must have made the research challenging. How much did you rely on history, and how much did you fictionalize?
MC: I relied a lot on the Bible, and I researched what I could, but it’s harder to do it. That liberates you as a historical novelist. You can make more stuff up and nobody’s going to come back and challenge you. The real issue for me was finding the courage to retell the Bible.
I believe that as a historical novelist, history is about telling what happened, while historical fiction is about telling how people felt while it happened.
KLJ: Besides being a Jewish story about faithfulness and practices, Babylon is also about a family coping with the dangerous reality of living as slaves in exile. It was, at times, painful to read.
MC: You want to write a book that people will keep reading, but also that they don’t put down and say, “This is too hard.” But on the other hand, these were desperately brutal times. I didn’t want to change that. I tried to provide ways to cope where I could. Seraf had a son despite his castration. Sarah raised a family, even though it broke her heart when her daughter adopted Babylonian idols.
KLJ: Religion is a very complicated layer in the story. In Babylon, strict adherence to religious principles and practices is both a source of great strength and great pain. What were the challenges of writing about religion?
MC: I find religion is a complicated layer in my life because I’m a secular Jew who writes about Jewish history.
A lot of that comes from the cultural underpinnings. Because I lived in Israel for so long (14 years), and went to high school in Israel, I was much more steeped in Jewish history than I would’ve been had I lived in the States for that part of my life.
So again, a huge theme for me is this whole question of assimilation versus religious tradition, which definitely played out in Babylon.
People make different choices regarding their religious beliefs, and I think people can take comfort from it. My husband, who is agnostic, if not atheist, who still adheres to the traditions of Judaism, basically says, “How can there be a God who killed six million Jews during the Holocaust?” I think these Jews in my book were feeling that kind of ambiguity about their religion. How can God, who promised us this land, have abandoned us? Is it, as the prophets were saying, because we were not adhering so strictly to what He wants from us, and should we repent, or should we just say the hell with it? It’s definitely complicated.
But with the scribe Uri, he took comfort from the Biblical stories. He got his understanding of his faith from those words. I tried to make a distinction between Uri’s approach toward those stories and Ezra’s, which was much more to adhere to the commandments and not to deviate.
I was so torn between the absolute cruelty of tearing these families apart and the fact that very possibly this was something that contributed to the longevity of the Jewish people. I wasn’t trying to come down on one side or the other, because I don’t think you can. This is the tension between adhering to religious tradition and assimilation.
KLJ: What’s next for you?
MC: I am playing with the idea of doing a book about the Maccabees. One of the reasons is that the Hanukkah story is not the whole truth. There was practically a civil war happening in Israel between the Hellenists and the more devout Jews. I’m playing with it, I’m researching it, I’m trying to find the story. So don’t hold me to it, but that is the current plan.