Interview with multi-genre writer Robert Earle

Robert Earle, a multi-genre writer is today’s guest. His newest book, The Man Clothed in Linen: The Messiah or Herod’s Son? is historical fiction.

Robert Earle was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and educated at The Hill School, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. He is the author of The Way Home, a novel; Nights in the Pink Motel, a critically acclaimed memoir of a year in Iraq; and dozens of short stories that have appeared in literary magazines across the U.S. and Canada. Robert Earle also was contributing co-editor of “Identities in North America: Search for Community”. For twenty-five years he was a senior diplomat and national security official,serving in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Washington, and New York.

He lives and writes in Arlington, Virginia.

Welcome to Reviews and Interviews, Robert. Please tell us about your current release.
The Man Clothed in Linen is historical fiction, a novel that places Jesus at the center of the contending forces of his age: imperial Rome, Rome’s surrogate rulers in Palestine, the Herods, and the Jewish people whose faith and practice was being torn between Temple Judaism in Jerusalem and the Judaism of the hinterlands (embodied first by John the Baptist and then Jesus.)

Herod the Great was the dominant figure of Palestine when Jesus was born, but the novel opens with him failing in health (and possibly impregnating a girl named Mary from Bethlehem who was brought to his bed to warm him). So the question arises: who will succeed him?

Before he dies, Herod takes bloody actions against the Jews to warn them that whoever comes next will face grave difficulties if they rebel against his personal patron, Augustus Caesar. Then he settles on the weaker of his two acknowledged sons, Archelaus, as his heir. Before long, the Romans remove Archelaus while permitting the other legitimate son, Antipas, to retain the title Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, but not king.

This is something of an upstairs/downstairs novel because its action is largely perceived by Nicolas of Damascus, Herod’s court historian, who is very close to Antipas’s steward’s wife, Joanna, but also is well-known to Augustus.

Nicolas and Joanna are the ones who save the infant Jesus’ life when Herod orders him found and killed, and the two of them are confronted with the fact, twelve years later, that the boy and his mother and step-father (Joseph) have relocated to Galilee, where Antipas has become Tetrarch.

Living an intimate life in quiet Galilee, where everyone knows everyone, Nicolas and Joanna witness the strange evolution of Antipas’s court and his determination to win back the throne in Jerusalem.

First John the Baptist gets in the way, leading to his shocking beheading. Then Jesus emerges, to whom Joanna attaches herself. This places Nicolas in the position of bridge between Antipas and Jesus on the one hand and Antipas and Pilate on the other.

The story of the New Testament then takes over, incident by incident, miracle by miracle, but is perceived from within the camps of the contending parties. Jesus wants to continue John the Baptist’s work of revitalizing Judaism. Pilate wants Antipas to quiet the disruptions in his land. Antipas wants to see an end to both Pilate and Jesus.

Antipas has come to know the possibility that Jesus is his half-brother by the time Pilate offers him the chance to spare Jesus’ crucifixion. We know Antipas’s decision. We also witness the callous way in which Pilate flaunts his power. He did not need Antipas to take Jesus back to Galilee in order to spare Jesus’ life.

What inspired you to write this book?
I received a somewhat unusual secondary education in Bible studies, ancient history, Latin and Greek. When the “historical Jesus” movement began to flourish (led by writers like Paula Fredriksen and John Dominic Crossen), I was moved to use fiction to get inside the ancient texts and explore them through characters in conflict. A number of these characters had long been compelling enigmas to me: Jesus, John the Baptist, Herod the Great and his sons, the Caesars, and the array of “little people,” like Joanna who are named but not fully developed in the New Testament.

There is only so much that “history” can do with all this; fiction can do more, but one individual, Nicolas of Damascus, was in fact an historian, and he was my narrative key. Nicolas was tutor to the children of Antony and Cleopatra, counselor to Herod the Great, and ultimately a member of Augustus’s court. Can you imagine such a first-hand exposure to history? When I learned what there is to know about Nicolas of Damascus, I saw the whole Mediterranean world come together in a fascinating story.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I am writing a cycle of stories that extends The Brothers Karamazov from its ending (all three brothers are alive) through emigration to the United States and three successor generations of Russian-Americans whose family business comes to be helping Russians first escape czarism and then communism. This is a family saga that covers almost 100 years. As in The Man Clothed in Linen, I make use of certain historical figures: Chekhov, Lenin, Jung, and Solzhenitsyn, for example.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think I probably saw myself as a writer when I was fifteen. I had been reading Dickens, Hemingway, Salinger, Crane, Twain, Conrad, and the like, and I wanted to do what they seemed to do: create worlds with words that were richer than the world itself.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I write full-time. For me that means sitting down with a cup of coffee between seven and eight in the morning and writing until eleven or twelve. I do this every day of the week. I discovered a long time ago that “life” is so full of distractions that I had to get the writing done first. After I write, I work out for a few hours and then come back to do administrative things–sending out stories, corresponding with editors, etc.– and pursue my reading. When I’m working on fiction that has a strong historical component, I read piles of books relevant to my subject. Otherwise, I read all kinds of things–fiction, history, philosophy, poetry and several newspapers and journals.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I suppose my most interesting quirk, as you put it, is that I follow my pen when I’m drafting. I try to stay tuned-in to what is emerging and let it have its way. I don’t hold back. I over-write, if you will. It’s much easier to cut later on than to add what once was within your grasp but later on has floated away. I must say that I do admire writers who take a different approach. Graham Greene is said to have written 500 words a day, gotten them just right, and then put his pen down. Nabokov perfected sentences on notecards. I’m not that kind of writer; I call what I do “white water” drafting, as in paddling wildly down a river in a kayak trying to move in generally the right direction. I like that term – white water drafting – great description.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a little boy the index and middle fingers of my right hand were mangled in a church door, and a local surgeon, Dr. Jenkins, stitched them back together again so that they’re perfectly functional, if a little disfigured. So I wanted to be a surgeon like Dr. Jenkins, who was known as “Jenks.” And if I couldn’t be a surgeon, I would have liked to play major league baseball. I was absolutely passionate about baseball.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
The Man Clothed in Linen is a story about the birth of Western Civilization. The period I write about is the period when the forces that created “us” came together, uniting Roman, Greek, and Judeo-Christian traditions and values. Nicolas of Damascus clearly is my alter ego, the figure with whom I identify most closely. For me, John the Baptist is the most compelling figure–I just love the passages of the book where he is central to the story–and Jesus, befittingly, is the most enigmatic, but I hope I have captured his rare blend of vision, dignity, compassion and fatalism.

Robert, thanks for being here today and sharing a bit about yourself and your writing. You certainly have variety!

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