An Interview with Author Michelle Cameron

Michelle Cameron’s novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates received silver in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, in the category of historical fiction.

Q: Can you sum up Beyond the Ghetto Gates in 20 words or less?

The clash of Jewish-Catholic cultures when Napoleon emancipated the Jews from their repressive Italian ghettos, embodied in two embattled women.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

My first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, dealt with the rise of antisemitism in medieval times and includes some extremely harrowing scenes. I was looking for a happier story to tell – not always easy to find when you write Jewish-themed historicals! When reading Michael Goldfarb’s nonfiction book, Emancipation, I came across the story of Napoleon encountering the Jewish ghetto for the first time during his 1796-7 invasion of Italy. His reaction – to send Jewish troops to demolish the gate in Ancona, struck me as a fitting subject for a novel. The fact that no one else had tackled this episode of Jewish history made it perfect for me.

Q: What research did you do when writing this story?

As stated above, Emancipation was my starting point. But from there, I dove into dozens of books and other resources – about Napoleon himself, about Napoleon and the Jews, about ghetto life, and about Ancona, Italy – a city I’d never heard of and have not yet visited – as that was the first place Napoleon ordered the ghetto gates to be dismantled.

The fact that the novel takes place in Ancona gave me two substantial gifts. One was learning that Ancona was the word center of ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) making at the time. I was stunned by the beauty of these illuminated documents and knew I had to use them as an essential part of the plot. The other was stumbling across the story of the miracle Madonna in Ancona’s cathedral – a portrait of the Virgin Mary that turned its head, wept, and smiled upon the congregation. There was a fascinating anecdote about Napoleon’s reaction when he saw the portrait which was irresistible. So the portrait plays a significant role in the storyline as well.

I generally devote about three months to intensive research – which includes not only books but Internet sources, visits to museums, viewing artwork from the period, and reading contemporary novels (a breeze this time, as I’m such a Jane Austen fan). I limit that time to three months to avoid jumping down the rabbit hole of research and just wanting to stay there – like the vast majority of my historical novel friends, I adore research! But of course, even when I’ve embarked on writing, I’m researching small details every single day.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

The end! I was incredibly fortunate in having fantastic beta readers for this novel, but it meant that I revised this book more than any other I’ve worked on. The beginning needed to be reworked several times, but the end of the novel proved particularly tricky. There were three possible options and – since I want to follow this novel with a second with the same characters – it needed to be open-ended and yet still satisfying for my readers. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the first option was voted down vehemently by anyone who read an early version of the novel, the second option needed far more pages than I could devote to it (it was already a long book) and the third – which I arrived at only right before submitting to the publisher – was the last minute inspiration of my most dedicated beta reader, the son whom I dedicated the book to.  

Q: Do you have any special connection to Ancona, Italy, where the story is set?

I actually had never even heard of Ancona before embarking on this novel. I only set the story there because it was the first place that Napoleon encountered the incarcerated Jews and decided to demolish the gates. And I still haven’t been!

 In fact, my publicist landed me an assignment with a publication called TripFiction, in which I wrote about this city I’d never seen.  As I conclude in that piece: “While I haven’t been fortunate enough – yet – to walk the steep, cobbled roads of Ancona, to visit the turquoise harbor, the magnificent cathedral, the Jewish graveyard, and the remnants of the ghetto, my own imaginings of the city have taken full possession of me. And while I’m certain the 21st-century harbor city will have changed from when Napoleon occupied it, I’m looking forward to the day when I can see these places with my own eyes.”

Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from readers?

I’ve been incredibly moved and flattered by all the positive feedback! A few of my aspiring novel students have told me that reading the book has provided them with a master class in writing, which is a huge compliment. The reviews have been excellent so far – though I know from experience with my first two books they may not stay so universally upbeat. I was thrilled when the Independent Book Publisher Awards (IPPYs) honored Beyond the Ghetto Gates with a Silver Medal. And perhaps most significant of all, I’ve been online via Zoom with several book clubs, Sisterhood groups, and others, and enjoyed some fantastic discussions about the novel – particularly about some of the themes: antisemitism, assimilation, and the place of women in society, both then and now.

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Q: What inspires you to write?

Honestly, the answer to this question is: I can’t not. Double negative though that may be, I find I’m happiest when I’m imagining, plotting, writing, and revising – and frankly irritable when life prevents me from doing so. Back in the days when I was writing poetry (when my sons were young and I didn’t have time for anything longer), it was language that moved me, and it still does. But as I discovered when I wrote my verse novel, In the Shadow of the Globe, I’m really a storyteller at heart – the collection of poems tell a story and the book should be read from page 1 through to the end, which is not typical of poetry books.

In fact, I tried to write The Fruit of Her Hands as a verse novel at first – and the material simply refused to be shaped in that format. When I finally decided to honor the book’s intention and make it a full-blown historical novel, I realized this was what it was meant to be – and that I was meant to be a novelist. And I’ve never looked back!

Q: Which character was the most challenging to write?

My main character, Mirelle. I’ve labelled the issue I had with her as my “feisty heroine” problem – how to create a believable 18th century character whom 21st century readers will resonate with and root for. Mirelle was too passive at first. My beta readers almost universally commented that early-version Mirelle lacked agency. Hopefully, her struggle between her duty to her family and faith, contrasted by her personal desires and particularly her infatuation for a dashing young Christian soldier, found the appropriate balance both for her time and ours.

Q: What is on your current reading list?

I’ve several books on my TBR pile and am excited to read all of them. I’m a fairly eclectic reader, though of course I lean toward historical fiction. Here’s my current list: C. W. Gortner’s The First Actress: a novel of Sarah Bernhardt, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer, and Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society.

And I’m embarking on research for the next writing project as well, so I’m reading several research books, including Nina Burleigh’s Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt and J. Christophere Herold’s Bonaparte in Egypt.

Q: What is your next writing project?

The above may have given you a clue! Following his highly successful military campaign through Italy, Napoleon was charged with somehow harassing the British. He decided the best way to do this was by conquering Egypt and Israel and set forth in a bizarre expedition which included some 150 academics from a wide range of disciplines. I’m going to include my two young soldiers, Christophe and Daniel, on this journey, where they’ll face unforgiving desert sands, botched battles, plague, and cross-cultural love affairs. And, for my readers who have fallen in love with Mirelle, she and Daniel will keep their promise to one another and exchange letters.

Q: Can you provide your web address and links to your social media profiles for the audience?

Delighted to!

Facebook Author page:

Q: Any closing remarks?

Thanks so much for this opportunity, Heidi! I love connecting with readers and would be delighted to Zoom into any book clubs who want to discuss the novel. There is a certain irony in the fact that I wrote a novel about a form of social isolation – being locked behind ghetto gates – that was released at a time when we are all socially isolated from one another, albeit in a very different way. But at least technology allows me to visit readers from all over the country and even the globe!

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