Today’s special author guest is Joyce Yarrow to chat with me about her new historical suspense, Zahara and the Lost Books of Light.
Joyce Yarrow is the author of literary novels of suspense that “appeal to readers who enjoy unusual stories with an international setting.” – Library Journal
Her latest offering is a historical fantasy, Zahara and the Lost Books of Light, from Adelaide Books.
A New York City transplant now living in Seattle, Joyce began her writing life scribbling poems on the subway and observing human behavior from every walk of life.
Her published novels include Ask the Dead (Martin Brown), Russian Reckoning – available in hard cover as The Last Matryoshka (Five Star Mysteries), Rivers Run Back, co-authored with Arindam Roy (Vitasta, New Delhi).
She is a Pushcart Prize Nominee with short stories and essays that have appeared in Inkwell Journal, Whistling Shade, Descant, Arabesques, and Weber: The Contemporary West and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Yarrow is a member of the Sisters in Crime organization and has presented workshops on “The Place of Place in Mystery Writing” at conferences in the US and India.
Welcome, Joyce. Please tell us about your current release.
In Zahara and the Lost Books of Light, Seattle journalist Alienor Crespo, a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, goes to Spain to file her claim to citizenship. Instead, she finds herself battling modern-day extremists to protect an endangered “Library of Light” – a hidden treasure trove of medieval Hebrew and Arabic books, saved from the fires of the Inquisition.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write Zahara by a song that I performed with a world music vocal ensemble – Quando el Rey Nimrod. Composed in Ladino – the language of Spain’s exiled Jews – the lyrics tell the story of the birth of Abraham. I would often introduce the song to our audience along with a fervent wish that the world’s three Abrahamic religions will someday acknowledge their common origins and live in peace. Zahara is based on the premise that La Convivencia – a short time in Spanish history when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in harmony—was not totally destroyed by the Inquisition.
Excerpt from Zahara and the Lost Books of Light:
Granada, Spain—October, 1499
The windows overlooking the Plaza de Bib-Arrambla have been tightly shuttered against the moonlight. Pavestones suffocate under a deluge of books, codices with wooden covers, as well as loose pages heartlessly ripped from their bindings. Handwritten in Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew, many of these works are illuminated with gold leaf or inscribed with exquisite calligraphy, only to be thrown together like corpses in a heap. Thousands of tomes lie strewn about the square, stacked as high as the shelves they once occupied in the libraries of Al-Andalus. The poetry of Mohammed Ibn Hani, works of philosophy by Moses Maimonides and commentaries on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd, scientific treatises by Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Muslim and Jewish holy books, all judged as heretical and in equal peril. The smell of incipient violence taints the air.
The forbidden works are to be burned in public view for the purpose of instilling fear. If you insist on practicing your religion and fail to convert, you will share the same fate.
Two ethereal forms float under the Arc of the Ears leading into the square. Above them, a dozen severed earlobes caked in blood hang from the keystone, trophies from the day’s executions. Ibn al-Arabī, the visionary Sufi philosopher, is clad in a russet brown robe. His piercing eyes are those of a devout skeptic. Beside him glides the Jewish Kabbalist, Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, draped in a flowing white gown with wide sleeves resembling wings. Bearded and wearing tightly-wound turbans, the figures hover above the ground in a diaphanous mist, incorporeal and invisible to the untrained eye. They converse in Arabic, although words are not strictly necessary for teleporting mystics tarrying in a world more than three hundred years beyond their own time.
“Tomorrow, when the sun sets, a million tomes will be set to the torch,” laments Ibn al-Arabī. “Countless copies of the Qur’an, immortal love songs and poetry, and works written by Jewish and Muslim scholars on the subjects of philosophy, medicine, religion, history, botany, astronomy, mathematics and geography will soon surrender their wisdom to the fire. I fear Light of the Intellect will be among them.”
Abulafia surveys the chaos in the square, as if searching for his masterpiece. “So kind of you to worry about my work when your own may well be fated to go up in flames as well.”
Ibn al-Arabī gestures at the workmen erecting the wooden ramparts upon which the words of their brethren will soon perish. “Tell me, Abraham, is there no way we can save these treasures from the Inquisition? Must we stand idly by and watch the blaze of the Devil’s Tribunal incinerate the last remnants of a glorious age?”
What exciting story are you working on next?
I am currently finishing Sandstorm – a rough and tumble coming-of-age misadventure about a girl-gone-wrong who uses her intelligence, street smarts, and sheer force of will to survive as a forger, make right an art theft, and finally redeem herself.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
At seventeen, I often rode the bus through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, jotting down poems that were soon to be published by a literary magazine in Brooklyn. This early publication was all the encouragement I needed to begin my life as a writer. Little did I know I would eventually morph from a poet into a novelist.
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 research and write full-time, except for the months I take off to replenish my grey cells after finishing a book. I like to start my day remembering the previous night’s dreams, when I can. My motto is, when stuck on a plot point, consult your subconscious. I’ve learned never to put anything on the stove while working, since deep alpha state consciousness is not compatible with kitchen safety.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I keep a written journal in which I work out ideas for my current project – sometimes to the point of writing down snippets of dialog and short chapter outlines. Don’t ask me why, but once I switch to typing the book on my laptop I often forget these handwritten notes exist and re-invent the wheel as I go. Eventually I read through my notes and often find clues to solve problems that have come up. Convoluted but that’s my MO.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was afraid you’d ask that. I distinctly remember how at the age of three I wanted to be a fire truck. Not a firefighter – the actual truck. I still remember my disappointment at realizing I was incapable of this transformation.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
It is heartening to see how passionately people are reading these days and feel there has never been a better time to be an author or a reader.
Thanks for being here today, Joyce!