A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
Returning from the blossoming, mild spring of Barcelona to Spokane’s icy terrain is like stepping, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” from color into black-and-white. In oh, so many ways. Because, in Spain, reporters read my book before they interview me — and then, they want to talk about the “scandal,” yes, but mostly they want to talk about The Book.
“Mariah,” I say, smiling over our delectable Iberian cured ham, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
No offense to Kansas, per se, but the difference is dramatic. In the U.S., not a single reporter has read my book before interviewing me. Therefore, no one asks me about the story, about the characters, about the lessons learned, about the situation for women in the Islamic past versus today. Even its critics haven’t read it. They spend three-quarters of their time providing a synopsis of the controversy and of A’isha’s life, then a few sentences complaining about a few word choices I made or about the writing style which they fail to understand. If they asked me, I’d tell them about pre-Islamic poetry, about the poetic nature of the Arabic language, and about how A’isha could recite thousands of poems, so her voice reflects all that poetic influence. But they don’t ask.
They do ask in Spain — and in Italy, too, where I promoted “The Jewel of Medina” last November. “Why was A’isha the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite wife?” “What do you consider the pivotal point in the story?” “When did the situation for women change in Islam?” “Why did Muhammad marry so many wives when he told his followers they could only marry four?” “How can you say Muhammad was a feminist when he had so many wives?” “Was it unusual for girls to marry at such a young age?” “How much of your book is historical, and how much of it is fiction?” “Is love something you feel, or something you do?” “What is the sequel about, and when will it be published?”
Readers — at book signings and book club meetings — ask me these kinds of questions all the time. They want to know! The American press, on the other hand, can’t ask, because they haven’t read the book.
Spain’s top reporters — among the country’s top intellectual minds — praise “The Jewel of Medina.” They ask how much of A’isha is me (my response: She is the woman I would like to be). They remark on my passion, my messages of peace and empathy between cultures, and on my red hair. Some ask me to sign their copies of my book. And then they go back and write more than 40 articles, many with photos. Radio and TV stations run interviews, too. All in all, I do more than 30 interviews with 34 reporters in 3.5 days. At night, I have dinner, then go to bed, where I awaken after 4 hours of sleep to toss and turn in a jet-lagged frenzy. Thanks to that strong Spanish coffee and Sudafed I manage to run on fumes during the day, and what I muddle my interpreter cleans up.
In the meantime, I meet my publicists and editors in Madrid and Barcelona, as well as quite a few policemen and security guards. I have handsome men following me everywhere I go (Is there a “sexy test” these guys have to pass for the job?), not because there have been threats (there haven’t been any), but just in case, opening my doors, driving me around, providing me with an umbrella when it rains, making restaurant reservations for me, escorting me to my room, arranging for my visit to a Gaudi museum without waiting in line for tickets. I develop crushes on them all. They are friendly but aloof. So I sublimate my desires by eating — that lovely ham, croquettes, Spanish omelettes, rice with saffron, sausages, seafood, cheese, oxtail, yum, yum, yum, yum, yum! Why don’t we hear more about Spanish cuisine? It is truly divine. I gained three pounds I know, but I don’t care. I’ll join a health club today.
I see “La Joya de Medina” with its provocative cover displayed prominently in “El Cortes de Ingles,” the Spanish mega-chain. How unlike the treatment some chain stores in the US have given to my novel, hiding it in obscure places or making the customer request it from behind the counter, or, in one case, placing a moratorium on all “Sherry Jones events” in all stores in a three-state region? Why, one asks, are we so afraid when the Spaniards are not?
On my third day of interviews, one week after “La Joya de Medina” has been released in Spain, my editor writes to tell me that the book has just gone into its second printing. People are snapping it up! In Serbia, I read, my book is still number one, since September. It made the best-seller lists in Germany, and has also sold well in Italy and Denmark.
Sales have been very good in the U.S., too, despite Beaufort Books’ inability to get much pre-publishing attention because of our decision to “crash out” the book. I hear from readers all the time who absolutely love “The Jewel of Medina” and appreciate its impact. “You’ve painted a human face on Islam,” one man wrote. Still, I wonder: Why all the respect for the book in Europe, and derision in the States?
I’ve asked around about this. Some blame our fear of Islam. Some blame the political damage going against the wishes of the nation’s biggest publishing house can cause. Some blame the jealousy author-reviewers might feel over the attention I’ve gotten as a debut novelist. (Hey, if you want my hate mail and websites calling for your beheading, take them!) Some say the controversy thrust the book into a “news” category, with literary authors being assigned to read it, when it should have been reviewed by critics who like mainstream commercial fiction. Some say the US media is in its death throes and reporters are too busy to read books. Some say Denise Spellberg’s grossly inaccurate characterization of my book as “pornography” caused the book not to be taken seriously; indeed, many sheep have followed with the grossly inaccurate “bodice-ripper” accusation (I call it a burqa-ripper because it exposes the egalitarian underpinnings of Islam).
Maybe it’s just a Europe-versus-America thing. Woody Allen was quoted in the airline magazine I read as saying he’s very successful in Europe yet can’t get audiences in the U.S. And we’ve all heard those reports about the decline in reading in America, with something like 50 percent of people admitting they didn’t read a single book last year.
In Spain, my editors tell me, people are reading more books than ever. That’s good, because I’m writing more of them than ever. Stay tuned for details of my sequel, being published in Germany May 1.