Shomer is an award-winning poet and short story writer who's written six previous books, but this is her first novel. I sat down with Shomer in her Tampa home days before the global release of The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.
Why do you think the convention of a physical journey as a metaphor for an emotional or intellectual journey is such a popular device throughout literature?
It’s not just a device or convention; it’s a fact. When you see people practicing totally different values who are just as human as you, it makes you question your assumptions. I think that is the value of travel. It really does broaden your mind. For Nightingale and Flaubert, the trip was key. Egypt was foreign to everything they knew. They both made this journey to obtain a completely different view of the world, and they got it. You sometimes have to physically leave your life before you can come back to it and change it.
Who would you choose to travel down the Nile with, Nightingale or Flaubert?
Flaubert. I think he would be more fun. As a man, he had a greater sense of freedom and safety than Nightingale did, though she was very daring, too. After all, four years later she went off to the Crimean War, armed with a bunch of gauze and a couple of dozen volunteers. She did a lot of extraordinary things. But he was more fun.
You capture both of these historical figures during a time in their lives when they are at a crossroads. Flaubert had just finished writing a failed novel. Nightingale was still trying to figure out what to do with her life. If someone wrote a historical fiction about your life, what would be your Nile trip?
Now that you ask, it occurs to me that I may have been drawn to this subject because I, too, went “to the Orient" and lived there for a year right after college. I’ve never connected those two things before. I went to Israel, on my own, without any connections. I just got on a boat. I didn’t even have a relative there.
But in terms of a challenging journey, this book would be my Nile trip. I always said I would not write a novel. I was too interested in language to try the longer form. Then I got hooked on writing short fiction. Agents started contacting me about writing a novel and I still had no desire to write one. But then Nightingale and Flaubert got their hooks into me. The story just grabbed me. It took me seven years. Actually, I wrote the first couple of pages in 2003, and put them aside. It was a very difficult book for me because I don’t think I am a natural novelist.
Another reason it would be this book for me was the saga of its publication. I originally sold it (along with a book of short stories) based on one chapter — highly unusual for a first novel. Then my agent quit the business and my editor at Random House was fired. I realized there was no one left there who cared about the book. Right after the big recession hit, my agent suggested taking the book back from Random House and selling it again. That was scary, but I decided to trust him and the book was auctioned off again, this time to Simon & Schuster. So the book was orphaned twice and it took me a long time to do it. I had a lot of personal struggles while writing it and did an enormous amount of research to ensure it would be credible. So, for all these reasons, this novel would be my Nile journey, even though I never left home.
In the first chapter you describe Flaubert's writing style in this way: “While other writers poured out their tales or allowed them to trickle forth like seasonal streams, he had carved The Temptation of Saint Anthony from the very mountain of the French language.” Would you use a similar metaphor to describe your writing style, like a sculptor chipping away at a form hidden in a featureless mass, adding details by subtraction? Or, do you use another metaphor to describe your writing style?
I am more of an accumulator rather than a subtractor. I am adding all the time. I actually wrote the book pretty much in the order it reads. There are a couple of scenes I moved around, but I never knew what would happen in the next chapter. I knew the characters weren’t going to stay together. I knew a lot of things that weren’t going to happen. I just kept accumulating information and ideas and listening to the characters. I ended up with more than I put in the book. At one point I was planning on having actual historical documents between the chapters. Oh, and another idea I finally shelved was to have 12 chapters to match the 12 rooms. I did a bit of over-planning because I’m kind of a workaholic and a perfectionist, and I had never written a novel before. I had a lot to learn, even though this was my seventh book.
It was a lot of fun. I felt so related to Flaubert for whatever reason. His letters are full of yummy details of naughty things he did. I was able to get a French facsimile edition of the book Maxime Du Camp wrote about their journey, so I had his take on things as well. Being Flaubert was immensely enjoyable.
Nightingale’s character finds similarities between ancient Egyptian and Christian beliefs in an afterlife. In particular, she compares the crucifixion to the sun-god Ra, dying in the West each night, traveling through the underworld on a river divided into 12 rooms for each hour of the night, then arising each morning to assure the continuity of the world. For you, how does this myth relate to the story you are telling in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile?
In this book, Nightingale is desperately searching for a way to be useful in the world. She was very interested in religion. She knew about Buddhism. She was teaching herself Hebrew. At one time she considered joining the Catholic Church, but she didn’t accept the Roman Catholic concept of evil, which is explained in the novel. All of this religious focus is ultimately about the transformation in death, but she is also looking for a transformation in life. That is the way the mythology illuminates the story. She is looking for a way to make sense of her life, and of life in general.
Nightingale was a very religious person. I would go so far as to call her what Flaubert calls her, a mystic. She was fascinated by all kinds of religious mythology, especially the Egyptian ideas of the afterlife. In that paradigm, you go through many trials in each of the 12 rooms of the night. Like the sun you will rise again into an afterlife. This is similar to the Christian idea that you will die, but you will be transformed and live again in some heavenly place like the Egyptian Field of Reeds.
Do you feel you have more of a poetic license to change a historical figure’s actions, or the way she sees and thinks about the world?
I actually did not have to play too much with their ideas because they both left an immense record of what they thought and did in their letters, diaries and other writing. I did invent many things, but I didn’t attribute to my characters anything I didn’t think they would actually do. I give them experiences and insights they did not actually have, but I think all of them were in line with their beliefs and personalities.
When doing research for this book, did you find it more helpful to read nonfiction books about this time period, or fictional works written during this time?
I needed to know all of Flaubert’s work and most of Nightingale’s work. She was a prodigious writer. There is a 17-volume series of her complete writings that takes up a whole bookshelf. I did not read any of her writings about India. She basically ran the public health system of India from her bedroom after she came back from the Crimean War. I read all of her writing that was relevant. I read all of his books. Because I didn’t know much about the details of life in Egypt in the 19th century, I read many books about that, as well as books about Victorian society in France and England.
In terms of being true to the characters, I suppose reading their diaries and letters was the most important. Sometimes I use their words. The most famous phrase from Nightingale that I use is, “No more love, no more marriage,” which is a diary entry. I occasionally used actual lines from Flaubert's letters home to his mother and friends, but I made up most of the letters in the novel. It’s truly a blend of the real and the invented.
If Flaubert and Nightingale were to read this book, how would they react?
I hope they would love it because it captures their deepest identities and desires. I really believe that or I could not write the book. I had to become them, to sort of channel them, to do this work.
When I first uncovered the fact that they were both on the Nile at the same time and I read their Nile journals and letters, I sensed that they had a deep connection and profound similarities of character. One historian I talked to said, 'I’ve studied both of them, but they exist in separate parts of my brain. They were so different.' Superficially, yes, they are dissimilar. He is such a bad boy and she is such a good girl. Here is a man who practices promiscuity daily, and yet he is writing about goodness in The Temptation of St. Anthony, which he rewrote for 30 years. They had so much in common—education, temperament, genius, etc.
The novel probes the connection they might have had, and also illuminates the times they lived in. They were so constrained by their times. She had absolutely no way to express her brilliance and he was bound up by his culture. Like Nightingale, Flaubert hated the bourgeois class he came from and yet he knew he was the beneficiary of its virtues. I think they would appreciate that aspect of the novel, which shows how conflicted they were, how constrained they were, and how much they needed to get away. This trip was, in actuality, crucial to their lives. They had to leave everything they knew to understand who they were, because they were both geniuses. And like most geniuses, they both felt like freaks at the outset of the trip.
In an interview regarding your collection of biographic poems, Stars at Noon, you describe poetry as being primarily about language and metaphor, while fiction is essentially about time. Can you explain what you mean by that using The Twelve Rooms of the Nile as an example?
Brevity is one of the touchstones of poetry, so unless it is an epic poem, poetry does not provide enough room to show character changing over time. Most poetry is lyric poetry and is concerned with capturing a moment, a feeling, taking a snapshot. To show characters evolving you need the longer thread of time that a novel or even a short story allows.
Poetry is more concentrated. It’s the nuclear reactor of language and functions primarily by metaphors, by striking comparisons. It would be too exhausting to ponder a metaphor in every line of prose. In that regard, I think poetry is always about language and fiction is always about time just because of the nature of the way the language is deployed. A poem must contain tremendous intensity of language, a lot of “arias.” An equivalent amount in a novel would be exhausting for the reader and might make the prose too dense and slow down the action too much. Of course, there are exceptions to all these generalizations.
In The Twelve Rooms of the Nile the characters are struggling to find their identity. For them and for all of us that is a battle with time, with the clock. In the novel, the ancient Egyptian ideas about the afterlife also deal with time, with the limitations imposed on all of us by death. So the question becomes twofold: How do you transform your life? And will your life live on through your work? Both the characters wanted that and both of them got it. Flaubert is considered the father of the modern novel and Nightingale invented nursing and public health.