Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink tells the story of two academics separated by 350 years: Helen Watt, a British professor at the tail end of her career, and Ester Velasquez, a Portuguese Jew living in 1660’s London. When Helen is tasked with verifying recently discovered scholarly papers written by a mysterious “Aleph,” she hires American grad student Aaron to assist her. As Helen and Aaron realize the possibility exists that Aleph is a woman, interest in the papers escalates and the two find themselves having to fend off competing forces. Bouncing between present day England and London right before the plague, Kadish explores the inner lives of all three characters as each is pushed to save the thing they love. Booklist praised The Weight of Ink as “a richly textured, addictive novel,” while Toni Morrison called Kadish “a gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Kadish via telephone on June 7th, 2017.
I wanted to start by asking about how Virginia Woolf writing about Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own inspired this novel.
I often start writing when something is bothering me and I can’t quite figure out why. I write in order to figure out what it is that isn’t quite sitting right. And that Virginia Woolf quote about Shakespeare’s sister has always stayed with me. Actually, Olive Schreiner was the first person who said it, but Virginia Woolf has the more famous iteration. She posed the question what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, and Woolf’s answer is she died without writing a word.
Of course that’s a haunting statement, because it’s true of what happened to most talented women of that era and many other eras as well—that there was no opportunity for them to speak, that the labors of day-to-day life were just crushing. I kept asking the question, what would it have taken for a woman like that not to die without writing a word? Is there a way it would have been possible? Just as there are intelligent, passionate women today, there were then. And were all of them defeated, or would some of them have found a way around things? I grew up among Jewish Holocaust refugees and I was intrigued by the question, what if this woman had other strikes against her? What if she were Jewish from an Inquisition refugee background, because that was going on in Shakespeare’s day as well.
I started thinking about all of this, and of course the answer to what would it take for a woman not to die without writing a word is she would have to have been a genius at breaking the rules. She could not have been what we think of as a nice, obedient girl, because nice meant sit down and shut up.
I started thinking about what would be involved with that. What kind of risks would someone have had to take? What if what she wanted to write or think about was dangerous and really bucking what was accepted at the time? Because in the era that I’m writing about, people could have literally been torn limb from limb for asking questions about, say, atheism. So I started thinking about what would it take for a woman not to be silenced. And of course the answer has to be some sort of elaborate deception. So that was the starting point for the book.
One of the chief questions that Helen has to face in the book is how she came to history, so I thought I’d ask how you came to history?
I feel like I was born into it. When I was a really little kid, I thought an accent was something you got as you grew older. My mom was born on the run, during World War II, so I grew up with my grandparents and great aunts and uncles—at that point they were safely in New York City. But anyone over the age of forty had an accent. So I thought, when I’m older I’ll have one too. I was just curious what kind of accent it would be. (laughs)
I grew up with these other languages flying around my head. Things that other people would read about in history books were stories that my families were telling—stories that would make them laugh and sometimes fall silent and sometimes I understood what they were talking about and sometimes I didn’t.
My grandfather was born in 1904 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what’s now Poland, and he would talk about that. So I was fascinated by history. To me, history was never that dry subject they were teaching in my high school classes. History was these amazing stories that would grab you by the throat and make you say, “Oh my gosh, was that what it was like?” History was finding out that when my grandparents were on the run, they needed a place to sleep one night so they slept in coffins in a funeral home because that was the only safe place to sleep.
So I’ve always been fascinated by the question, what was it really like? Not what date did that happen—all that dry stuff that you have to memorize—but really what it was like to be alive at that time.
Reading this book is such an immersive experience, where the reader gets a sense of what it was like to exist in 1660’s England. Can you talk about your research process?
I had such fun with it. I’m so glad I didn’t know what I was getting into because it’s intense. When you have your characters sit down for a meal, you have to figure out what’s on the table, and where that food came from, and they didn’t have refrigeration so what kinds of food could they have, and what utensils were they using, and what are people’s manners like, and what are they wearing, and what’s the clothing made of? Is it very heavy? What does it feel like to walk around with what the women had to wear—the farthingale and the bustle all of those stiff elements of clothing that women wore? How did all this work?
So the detail could feel endless, but it was also great fun. I was really guided by this idea that I needed to do a ton of research, but all that research didn’t need to appear on the page. What I needed to do was find the couple of details that really brought an era to life. The detail about the kind of ink that would dissolve through the paper and actually burn its way through the paper over the years. Or the fact that the shoe store was called “The Cordwainer’s.” So details like that, where I’d find the right ones, that really made the scenes feel alive to me.
How did you know what was enough?
I tried to be guided by needing to tell the emotional truth of a scene, but not needing to catalog every fact about seventeenth century London. When I wasn’t sure if I was putting in too much detail, I would ask readers. I would say, “Is this getting boring?” Because the last thing I wanted to do was have it be boring. History needs to feel alive. My obligation is to tell a good story and not clutter things up and show how many facts I learned. So I tried to be very careful about that. I thought about those pen and ink drawings where you have the minimum number of details necessary to evoke the image of the room, and that’s what I tried to follow.
In both of the time periods where the book takes place, there are these big love stories where characters talk about either remaking the world or being defeated by the shape of the world. What was it like to create those sweeping romantic relationships that are so influenced by the time period in which they exist?
People are people and the human heart is the human heart. We’re also all creatures of the time periods we live in. We’re all trapped, for better and for worse, in the times we live in, and we have to operate that way. So it was interesting writing the stories of characters separated by three hundred and fifty years. They’re all feeling many of the same things, it’s just that the options open to them are very different.
Not only the feelings of love, but the feelings of intellect, where Aaron immediately feels this intellectual kinship with Aleph.
Part of what I wanted to write about was the passion for learning, the passion for history, and the passion for understanding. At its best, every form of love becomes unselfish. You want to do something because it’s the right thing to do, because you love the object of your love and you want that person or thing to thrive. Both Aaron and Aleph—or as we later know her, Ester Velasquez—they ultimately feel such passion for the things they care about in the world—history in Aaron’s case and thoughts, philosophies, and truths in Ester’s case—that they’re willing to give over their own egos in the service of that.
You’ve already mentioned it, but iron gall ink plays a critical role in the story. Can you describe what it is?
One of the really cool things about doing research for this book is I got to talk to document conservationists and rare books librarians and learn so much. I loved learning about this whole world of the technology of writing before we thought of it as technology: the feather quill pens, the bottles of ink, the types of paper, the watermarks on the paper. It’s all so beautiful to me.
There was a kind of ink used in the seventeenth century called iron gall ink. There are many different recipes for it, but it was made in part by ground up galls, which are made by wasps in oak trees. Anyways, iron gall ink had a lot of different formulations. Some batches over centuries would actually eat through the paper. What that looks like when it happens is if you write a word, if you write the word “book,” the letters “b-o-o-k” will actually eat their way through the paper over centuries and excise themselves. You’ll have a cut-out in the paper of “b-o-o-k.” It’s the most beautiful thing. And other batches of iron gall ink wouldn’t do that. So they don’t know what the ingredient was that caused the corrosion, but some of these manuscripts would be in tatters, but the most beautiful kinds of tatters. So I played with that in the writing of the book.
Was that a detail that just captured your imagination as a writer?
The idea that words could be so powerful that they would burn their way through the paper they’re written on, that’s a keeper.
Librarians play a significant role in the novel, with two librarians—both named Patricia—offering assistance to Adam and Helen. What role have libraries and librarians played in your life?
Libraries are like our modern temples, and librarians are like the priests in the temple. I don’t want to sound over-gushy here, but especially right now with so much of what’s going on in our country, there’s such an anti-intellectualism. Librarians and libraries are the guardians at the gate of our culture. They’re holding onto the stories that we need to know about ourselves and each other. I take that really seriously.
I had a lot of fun in the book with the Patricia characters, playing with and making fun of the stereotype people have of librarians. But in the end I see the librarians as these really luminous characters, because their actions are illuminated by love for what they’re trying to preserve: these documents, these manuscripts, these pieces of the past that have floated down through the ages. The librarians are the ones holding onto them and preserving them.