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Woman Warrior: Emily Barton

Author Emily Barton

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Last Updated: 07/08/2016 9:13 am
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She wrote the first draft by hand, hiring Woodstock resident Susan Ray—widow of filmmaker Nicholas Ray—to type the manuscript. She was an enthusiastic early reader, as was Hopkins.

Barton did "five or six" drafts, with a yearlong hiatus. Her research was broad and deep. She'd studied the vanished Khazar kingdom during religious instruction classes for her husband's conversion to Judaism, but needed more details. Her acknowledgments include people who helped her with Khazar culture and history, racing pigeons, horses, rabbinical studies, linguistics (in several languages), and Yiddish idioms. It took a village.

But story and character always came first. "Research can take over and become an enterprise unto itself. I do my best to avoid that, to let the research serve the work," says Barton. "I always imagine it first and then see if I'm right." Brookland is set in 18th-century Brooklyn and The Testament of Yves Gudron in an invented quasi-medieval village, so she knew the terrain.

Writing first and fact-checking later can have pitfalls, as Barton discovered when she set a 180-page sequence during a treacherous mountain crossing and later discovered the region is flat, part of the vast Eurasian steppe. She shrugged and retrofitted, as determined as her young heroine.

Strong as she is, Esther is riddled with doubts and conflicting urges. Sometimes she bristles at gender-based slights, itching to crush a delicate tea glass, but she's torn about surrendering her female identity—if that's even possible. "Esther is complex. She has a good heart, her intentions are good, but her actions are not always good. An authentic hero can't be a paragon of virtue. She has to be someone just like us, who rises to the occasion as circumstances demand it," Barton says, adding, "Esther is nothing if not righteous. That's what I want for my children. I want them to be happy, and I want them to be righteous men."

Barton grew up in northern New Jersey. Her father's forebears hailed from Odessa; her mother's were among the few Jews to live in imperial St. Petersburg. "They picked up some German and French people as they went along, wherever they were pogrommed out of," she says. Hopkins can trace his ancestry back to the American Revolution—one of them led the Battle of Bennington—but there are rumors of Jewish conversos and Romanian blood in his gene pool. "Anything's possible," Barton says with a grin. "We're all related. How about Gilda Radner? She's who I most want to be."

Though her upbringing was "relatively secular," Barton found herself "longing for spiritual connection. I practiced yoga and meditation, but those are not practices people I'm related to have been doing for centuries." Members of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, she and Hopkins keep kosher at home. "Kosher-ish," she amends. "No pork or shellfish. We don't mix milk and meat, but we wash the same dishes in the dishwasher. I don't invite kosher friends over to eat."

They moved to Kingston in 2007, relocating to Northampton, Massachusetts, for two years while Barton taught at Smith. "Kingston changed a lot in the two years we were gone," she observes. "It's so much livelier now—more art, more restaurants, so many people moving up from the city. There's a lot of ambivalence about that, but as someone who came up from the city herself, I welcome the diversity and different life choices that brings."

Diversity animates The Book of Esther. Along with the hulking, unkillable golems, Esther's band-of-outsiders army includes Uyghur warlords, heretics, refugees, badass women, and a pioneering trans man. Despite its fantastic elements, it's a novel of ideas, with much philosophical inquiry about various Jewish traditions, what women and slaves can and can't do. "Also non-Jews, things we make out of clay, mechanical things," Barton says. "What rights does a pigeon have? I wanted to ask that on every level, not just within Judaism. What does it mean to be a person, a Jewish person, a Jewish woman? There's a slow questioning that unfolds over many chapters, but also an adventure plot that barrels forward at 110 miles per hour. That friction, that tension, is what interests me."

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