Questions & Answers With ELLE NEWMARK

Questions & Answers: 

1. The Sandalwood Tree takes place in a very interesting place and two fascinating time periods. What made you choose this setting and these moments in time? What research did you do in writing the novel?

Love and war are universal themes and I wanted to write about both. I needed two love stories set against a backdrop of two wars to show the parallels in human behavior that transcend time and culture.

The research for The Sandalwood Tree was both extensive and fascinating. First I read general histories of both eras, and then I researched popular trends of times. For the Victorian story, I searched out rare, original diaries and journals kept by Victorian Memsahibs living in India. Those women were some tough cookies! It wasn't only a difficult life on a daily basis; there was also the ever-present specter of disease and death. You would never ask an Englishwoman in India how many children she had. You would ask how many living children she had.

Regarding my first-hand research, I first visited India in 2001 but only saw Mumbai, Kerala and Rajasthan. So I went back in 2009 to refresh my memory about how India feels and sounds and smells, and to see the places in which the novel is set. I spent all of March driving around northern India, interviewing, rubbernecking, and taking notes. I found the people to be open and gracious and eager to share their thoughts and experiences. I still get email from my driver, Ramesh. He has promised to show me the real Rajasthan. 

2. What draws you to the genre of historical fiction? Does the mixture of history and storytelling pose a challenge? Do you enjoy reading historical novels in addition to writing them?

I like a broad canvas and a rich palette for my books, and history offers both. The challenge is to write a story that doesn't read like a history text and the key to that is character. If you identify with the humanity of the characters you understand their behavior and care about them, no matter where or when they are.

I read some historical fiction, but I'll read anything that is well done, including non-fiction. It is exciting and liberating to remind myself that there is room in literature for many voices.

3. In The Sandalwood Tree, which facts and characters are historically based and which are created for the novel?

Obviously Gandhi and the British Viceroy Mountbatten are well-known historical figures. But the eccentric Englishwomen that Felicity and Adela admired were also real. Honoria Lawrence really did spend 25 years marching around India with her surveyor husband, and Fanny Parks really did have a pet squirrel named Jack Bunce and she really did travel extensively without her husband. Shocking!

General Reginald Dyer did perpetrate the very real massacre at Amritsar and was subsequently acquitted and rewarded for his actions.

The First War of Independence (Also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or the Sepoy Rebellion) did occur in 1857, and Indians did call Britain's indiscriminate war of revenge the Devil's Wind.

Mangal Pandey was the first sepoy to defy his British commander. He was hanged, but his actions sparked the First War of Independence.

Vicount John Charles Canning was a Governor-General in India during the First War of Independence. He was the lone British voice to call for restraint during Britain's war of retribution, and it earned him the sarcastic title of “Clemency Canning.” He was roundly criticized.

Dalhousie was the British Governor-General of India whose arrogant policies led to the First War of Independence. Dalhousie dismissed the uprising as a “mutiny of peons.”

Muhammed Ali Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League, an opponent of Gandhi, and a vigorous supporter of partition. He advocated a separate Muslim state, Pakistan, and he became its first Governor-General. He is known as “the father of a nation.”

Simla was indeed the Queen of hill stations and the destination of choice during the hot weather for any and all who could afford it. It is now known as Shimla. The mall is now reached by a rickety outdoor elevator that rises halfway up the side of a mountain to a suspended bridge that leads to another equally rickety elevator that takes you farther up the mountain and deposits you on the mall. One can still visit Christ Church, the Gaiety Theatre, the magnificent Viceregal Lodge, the Willow Bakers, and Clark's Hotel with its cozy blue and white Tudor architecture.

The Fishing Fleet was a tradition followed by young British women for more than a hundred years. Military men in India were given a furlough back to England about once every eight years, so it was considered expedient for the women to go to them—particularly women with limited prospects in England. Englishmen in India outnumbered Englishwomen about five to one.

Thousands of single women undertook the perilous voyage to India—fishing for husbands. Until 1830, that meant sailing down around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The Cape was known for violent storms and more than one ship was lost there. Later, ships went through the Red Sea to Alexandria, and then continued by land to pick up another ship that took them to India. In 1869 the Suez Canal was finished and the voyage became briefer, more comfortable and less dangerous. 

During WWII, there was a small POW camp in Dharamsala for Italian POWs who were allowed to roam free because there was nowhere to go. While in India, I spoke with a colonel retired from the Indian army who remembers the Italians who loved Indian beer too well and sometimes spent the night passed out on his verandah. When that sort of behavior became too common, a small jail was built, and public drunkenness or failure to report in at night got them ten days behind bars.

Partition is all too real. Great Britain sliced India up into three parts: India (or Hindustan) in the middle, with East and West Pakistan for Muslims on either side. During that frantic, bloody shuffle of populations, it is estimated that one million people were killed and twelve and a half million displaced. In 1971, East Pakistan asserted its independence and changed its name to Bangladesh.

As far as I could tell, partition has done exactly nothing to ease tension between Hindus and Muslims. There are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan, and everyone knows who is who. With an indignant edge in his voice, a Hindu man said, “They live in India, they eat Indian food, and they speak Hindi. But at a cricket match, who do you think they cheer for?” He bulged his eyes at me, daring me to guess. “Pakistan!” he shouted. And then he spat.

One night in Amritsar, I went to the India/Pakistan border to witness the ceremony of lowering the flags and closing the gate (yes, there's a gate). There were thousands of people there and it had the atmosphere of a carnival. Squeaky Indian music blared from a megaphone, children danced, and old women in saris and flip-flops waved flags—Indian flags on one side of the border and Pakistani flags on the other. Vendors roamed around selling roasted corn, cold drinks, and souvenirs.

After standing in a line akin those outside women's restrooms, I was patted down by a bored, shrouded woman in the “security tent.” I was then ushered through a crowd of people to a front row where I was seated with the six other white people who were there. I didn't ask for that seat. I was white and it was simply assumed that I would insist on it.

When it came time for the ceremony, the music stopped and a deep voice came over the megaphone asking in a slightly sinister tone, “Hindustan?” and the Indian crowd went wild. “Forever!” they screamed in Hindi. “Hindustan forever!” On the other side, an equally somber voice asked, “Pakistan?” and the other crowd erupted in a riot of patriotism. This went on, back and forth, for several minutes. Then there was a brief warning (spoken quickly and quietly, like the side effects in drug commercials), cautioning people not to say anything derogatory about the other country. Apparently, there have been incidents.

The Indian and Pakistani soldiers put on an elaborate show of goose-stepping, flinging weapons around, and glaring at each other. If looks could kill… Eventually, they met at the gate, did one last well-choreographed show of force—threatening gestures and guns pointed at each other, your basic warrior kitsch—then they shook hands grudgingly and closed the gate. The flags were lowered so carefully and slowly I could barely see them moving. This was to ensure that neither flag flew higher than the other at any time. And they do that every night, 365 days a year.

It's supposed to be a tourist attraction, a fierce, burlesque bit of street theater. But I couldn't help remembering that Hindus and Muslims have been fighting since, well, forever, and now—oh, God—they both have nuclear weapons. It was kind of a buzz kill.

4. You've traveled extensively. Can you tell us a little about where you've been? Is there anywhere that you most felt connected, or liked the best? Where do you most dream of visiting?

I feel most connected to Europe; it is very familiar to me and I enjoy it tremendously. I made my first voyage when I was four years old but the only thing I remember about that is a storm at sea. Somehow, I became separated from my parents and I climbed into a lifeboat to hide. I heard bells and shouting, I saw flashlight beams slicing through the gray rain, but I didn't know they were looking for me until I felt myself being lifted out of the lifeboat and a man saying, "I found her." I'm a grandmother now, but I still think it makes sense to hide in a lifeboat during a storm. Doesn't it?

I've visited Europe many times since then. I still have a bunch of warm, wildly gesticulating relatives in Northern Italy and between their hesitant English and my truly terrible Italian we always have a wonderful time together.

In 1985 my husband and I moved in Germany on a three-year contract, but we liked living in Europe so much we stayed for seven years. We both worked for the U.S. army, he as a physician and I as an illustrator, and we traveled at every opportunity. We went to London for theater and bookstores, I took cooking lessons in Paris, we got stranded in Prague, drove lazily along the Italian Riviera, stuffing ourselves with fresh seafood, had tea at the Russian army post in the former East Berlin, listened to gypsy violins in Budapest, and we vacationed in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, and—our favorite—the former Yugoslavia.

Europe feels like a second home not only because I've been visiting all my life, but also because seven years as a resident molded me into a more serious and mindful person. Europe is old and war-torn and world-weary and it helped me understand what it means to be human and American. I started writing fiction while living in Europe.

My husband and I were planning our fourth trip to Yugoslavia when the war in Bosnia broke out. It was a new and terrible experience to see pictures in magazines of streets I'd walked on reduced to rubble, to see corpses rotting in the gutter and wonder if I'd met any of them, selling apples or T-shirts.

We were in Europe when Chernobyl blew up, and in the aftermath we were told to wash our fruits and vegetables with soapy water. Irradiated water! It was absurd. The thing is, there was nothing to be done; it happened and we would have to live with the consequences. Washing our food with soap gave us the illusion of doing something useful, like cleaning and organizing gives the illusion of control. Everyone knew the soap was pointless, but we did it anyway. I was remembering Chernobyl when I wrote about Evie responding to a loss of control by keeping busy and organized.

We were also in Germany when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Troops in Germany were among the first to go because they were relatively close by. I was working at a military installation and I saw the toll it took on the families left behind. No one knew it would be brief any more than we knew Iraq would last nine years.

Every day I drove to work through crowds of protestors holding signs—No Blood for Oil—and I learned how to check my car for bombs because we had American license plates. Armored tanks patrolled the base and the electrified perimeters were switched on. My co-workers came to the office armed and in full battle dress. When I drove to the American grocery store or post office, I often crawled at 5 miles per hour behind a tank with a machine gun trained in my direction.

Europe is my second home because it is my heritage, I know it, I love it, and it opened my mind and heart to a wider worldview.

I find Asia and Africa intriguing because they are the most exotic to me. Memories of the antiquities along the Nile, the klongs of Bangkok, the Masai villages in Kenya, and the rainforests of Malaysia and Costa Rica are almost dreamlike. I feel enormously privileged to have seen these places, and enormously greedy for wanting to see more.

I would like to see the city of Fez in Morocco for its Arabian Nights ambiance, and Tanzania for its natural beauty, and Zanzibar just because of the name. I'd also like to see much more of China (I've only visited Canton) I'd like to spend a serene week at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan, and there are still places in India… oh, I could go on and on. I love to travel because I never feel quite so alive as when I'm seeing something for the first time, and if there is an element of uncertainty or even risk all the better.

5. Both The Chef's Apprentice and The Sandalwood Tree go into great detail on all aspects of food: buying, preparing, eating. Do you enjoy cooking yourself? Did you make any of the dishes you wrote about in the novels?

I'm Italian! I grew up in a big, boisterous extended family that revolved around food and music. There was always someone cooking or eating or singing or all three. My father once sang in an opera—I have no idea how it happened, but I've seen pictures—and I have no doubt he celebrated afterward with a fine meal. My mother had a lovely alto voice and she sang with the church choir as well as at home while she cooked. When we got a HiFi (very chic in the 50s), she wore it out singing along with her Enrico Caruso records.

But food came first; food was the centerpiece of life. Food was a way to express love and creativity and respect—an intimate way to be together.

And not just any food; my father was a master chef, so the standards were high. The number one rule was fresh. Everything had to be fresh and in season and the presentation must meet a certain aesthetic standard. For my first communion party, my father made a display piece of lobsters dressed in little overalls, holding fishing poles and sitting around a miniature pond stocked with live goldfish.

However, elaborate displays or not, every meal required that attention be paid to preparation and presentation. On special occasions, meals were almost ritualistic. I have fond memories of holiday meals with hand-crocheted tablecloths, old china, heavy silver, solemn toasts made in my grandfather's booming voice, and about a hundred courses.

Afterward, I dried dishes with my mother and grandmother and aunts while we sang Italian folk songs and the men played pinochle. I can see the raised eyebrows of liberated women everywhere, but don't worry. After the women joined the card game they beat the pants off the men, who by then had finished off a couple of bottles of homemade wine.

My husband introduced me to Indian food. He was a volunteer doctor on the Hope Ship when it docked for two months in Sri Lanka in 1970 (then called Ceylon) and he acquired a taste for hot, complicated curries. We lived in Denver and he knew a Singhalese family in Boulder who ran a restaurant; we went there on one of our first dates. The food was so hot I thought the lining of my mouth had been burned off. I have since toughened up.

Strangely, south Indian food is the hottest. As you go north, the weather gets cooler and so does the food. You'd think it would be the other way around, wouldn't you?

In the early 80s, I had a friend who was dating an engineer from India, and he taught me that the secret is to grind your spices fresh each time. Start with whole cardamom pods, whole coriander seeds, whole cumin, whole mustard seeds, etc. It's not that big a deal—you can use a mortar and pestle or an electric coffee grinder—and it makes all the difference in the world.

Out of all the recipes in The Chef's Apprentice I actually made only two: Luciano's two failed cheesecakes. I needed to know how they would look and smell in order to describe them. But I didn't taste them. They did not look taste-worthy. The other recipes were not painstakingly researched Renaissance dishes. I totally made them up as metaphors. I do know how to cook though, and I'm pretty sure that you could follow the basic ingredients, substitute here and there, and come up with a decent dish. Capon Stew in Mare's Milk, for example, would be just fine as chicken in cream sauce. But each recipe in Unholy Mischief was there to make a point.

6. In your first novel, The Chef's Apprentice, one of the main characters was inspired by your father. Was anyone in The Sandalwood Tree based upon a real person?

I had a Jewish uncle who served in WWII. He was among the American troops that liberated Dachau and he never recovered from that experience.

I was close to Uncle Herb; he taught me to love books, discussed them with me, helped me with my homework, and gave me drawing lessons. He had little formal education but he was an autodidact, very intelligent, an avid reader, and he had the heart of an artist. He produced some lovely sculptures. He was also an atheist and a communist and, though I didn't know it at the time, he occasionally planted a few subversive notions when my Catholic parents weren't within earshot.

He talked about the war a lot, but whenever he said the word "Dachau" his wife immediately left the room. He would begin talking about what they saw there and end up shouting incoherently in a mixture of English, Yiddish, and German. He was a big man with a strong, deep voice that reverberated through the house. He could look scary when he got worked up. Just when you thought someone would have to step in to calm him down, he would run a hand through his thick dark hair, make a disgusted sound, and fall silent.

He never described a massacre, but it was always clear that there was something more than the horror of Dachau itself tormenting him. No one ever pressed him on the subject. We didn't want to know.

When I was researching the 1947 story for The Sandalwood Tree, I needed something specific to haunt Martin and I remembered my uncle. I googled Dachau and my jaw dropped at the avalanche of information about this massacre I had never before heard of. There are first-hand accounts and even photos, and I caught myself looking for my uncle's face among the American troops.

My husband, who is older than I, remembers hearing about the massacre after the war. "But the whole thing suddenly disappeared," he said. "Replaced by other news."

Not surprising. There was and is little sympathy for Nazis, and the general feeling was that they got what they deserved. No one would be eager to punish American soldiers who killed Nazis in a concentration camp. Our boys were heroes, and I'm not being sarcastic; they were good men and that is the point. They were good men trying to do an impossible job. What happened at Dachau is not a comment on the men who took part in the massacre; it is a comment on war. War twists the humanity out of people.

Uncle Herb was Jewish and Dachau must have felt terribly personal to him, but he was a good man, a smart man, and he knew the difference between war and murder. Still, I think he probably wanted to kill those Nazis, and there's the rub. But who wouldn't? Imagine wading into a nightmare of 32,000 starving people, dead and dying, the piled corpses, the cholera, the stink, seeing the crematorium, and having the well-fed perpetrators standing right there in front of you in their Nazi uniforms. Thirty years later my uncle was still enraged.

I'll never know what he did that day, but at the very least, he stood by and watched, and I think that might be what he could never come to terms with—because he was a good man.

I didn't find him in the photos, and that was a relief. But I know he was there, and I know—everyone knew—that the experience scarred his soul permanently. I always felt he could have been a happier person if somehow he could have let go of Dachau. But, you see, he never told us.

Having Martin confess to Evie and having her forgive him healed something in my memory of Uncle Herb.

All the other characters are completely fictional.

7. The Indian people's superstitions are a pervading theme throughout the novel. Why do you think people cling so closely to superstition? Do you have any superstitions of your own?

We should remember that what we call superstition they call religion. But no matter what you call it, I think it exists because people are afraid. We want to believe someone is in charge, that everything happens for a reason, and that there is some kind of Grand Plan. I don't know whether there is or not, and I don't believe anyone else does either, but it's comforting to think so.

Rules and superstitions make people to feel safe. As I've said before, it's reassuring to believe that if you just follow this or that set of rules you'll be safe. Knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, don't step on that crack, don't break that mirror, pray to the right God…and you'll be safe. Ah, what a relief.

The truth is we don't know the answers to the big questions and living with that kind of uncertainty is challenging; for some people it's just too scary. So we invent things to make ourselves feel better. Perform havan and the rain will come. Bury a statue of St. Joseph and you'll sell your house. Pray to a statue and get your wish. Cover your head, take off your shoes, swallow this wafer, bow three times… and you'll be safe.

Personally, I am afflicted by a condition that I call MKJSS—Momentary Knee-Jerk Superstition Syndrome. It's tied up with all kinds of early conditioning and religious training—that's the syndrome part. When I see a black cat I think witch for about as long as it takes to say the word. Then I feel like a fool. That's the momentary knee-jerk part. When I enter a church or temple I think sacred place, again for as long as it takes to speak the words. Then I remember that all places are sacred.

I harbor all the same superstitions as anyone else with my background, but I try hard to keep my MKJSS in remission.

8. The monument outside the graveyard in Simla reads, “They are young and old. No question, no answer, all silent.” What does this mean to you? Did you write it, or is it a traditional quote?

I'd like to say I wrote it because it sounds so mysterious and profound, but I didn't. It is engraved in stone at the entrance to a graveyard in India. I think it means that although there are many people buried there, they will not be answering any questions about mortality.

We like to think that loved ones who have died are still alive somewhere, somehow, in some sense, and maybe they are; I don't know. There are plenty of people who claim to talk to the dead and plenty more who will pay them to contact a lost loved one. People see ghosts, they hear things that go bump in the night, and they spin epic scenarios around unexplained phenomena. We do this partly because some things really are bizarre and unexplainable, and partly because it feels better than the unacceptable idea that this is all there is. Maybe there is more, but we don't know what it is, and no one in the graveyard is talking.

We also have this odd idea that people get smarter after they die, that they suddenly understand the mysteries of life and the universe. But if that were true, wouldn't some dead person have come forward by now? I'm not talking rattling chains or transparent apparitions or cold rooms. I mean if they're out there, wherever there is, and they want to tell us something important—presuming they can—then why not just do it without all the hocus pocus?

Personally, I think communication with the dead is wishful thinking, and I believe that's what the engraving means—come and pay your respects, but you're not going to learn anything here except what might occur to you as you contemplate your own mortality.

. Felicity tells Adela, “In India, one can be full of life at noon and buried before dinner. If I must choose between joy and caution, I choose joy.” Would you say your approach to life is similar to Felicity's?

Absolutely. My mother died when I was 20 and she was 44. I remember her talking about all the things she was going to do after her daughters grew up and left home, but she died the day my sister graduated from high school. My mother put off much of her own life for my sister and me and, while that is truly industrial-strength motherhood, it made her unexpected and early death even sadder. It also made mortality very real for me. Living in the moment suddenly seemed extremely practical.

But the seeds of that attitude were probably already in my personality. When I was a child, my good and dutiful mother loved to tell me the story of the grasshopper and the ant. Obviously, I was meant to admire and emulate the industrious ant, especially after the ant gets fed up with helping him and the fun-loving grasshopper dies because of his own profligate recklessness. Dumb bug. Except.

The ant died, too, didn't it? I mean, eventually. So the grasshopper had all the fun, the ant did all the work, and the ant lived a little longer (if you call that living). But in the end they both died because that's what happens. I never told my mother, but I liked the grasshopper better than the ant.

My father lived to be 91 and he made use of every minute. He, too, was dutiful and industrious, but he didn't put off anything for anyone. Somehow, he managed to be both grasshopper and ant. Working or playing, living and loving, he gave everything 150%. After Dad died, even in our grief, there was a sense of celebration for a life so well lived.

We don't know what tomorrow will bring, so I do think it's best to make the most of today. Abe Lincoln said, "It's not the years in your life that matter, it's the life in your years." Or in contemporary parlance: "Life is uncertain; eat dessert first."

10. What can we expect to see from you next?

Amazonia. Not the cyber-superstore but the vast, mysterious jungle in Brazil where there are still uncharted places and tribes yet to be contacted by the modern world.

The story centers around a handful of indigenous people, circa 1900, forced to flee their home forest because of an influx of loggers and rubber tappers. On their search for a safe haven they encounter hostile tribes, zealous missionaries, and ruthless loggers known as "intruders."

The story is narrated in the first person by the Forest, similar to the way in which The Book Thief was narrated by Death.

The working title is The Cloud Forest.