AS a social commentator (among the many other caps she wears), Leslie Cannold doesn’t shy away from controversy – she welcomes it. So it’s no surprise that her first novel, The Book of Rachael, is about the women of Nazareth – in particular, the sister of Jesus. Spend five minutes with Cannold, best known as an outspoken commentator on women’s reproductive rights, and it becomes clear that her passion for giving a voice to worthwhile causes extends to those who lived 2000 years ago, a time when she says women ‘‘were treated like animals’’.
The existence of Jesus’ siblings has long been a subject of debate and is denied by the Catholic Church. But Cannold, widely regarded as one of Australia’s top public intellectuals, says the idea for her book was sparked while watching a BBC documentary series called Son of God.
‘‘The programs were about Jesus, the man – not the religious figure – a poor Jewish peasant about whom I knew next to nothing,’’ says Cannold, who describes herself as a secular Jew. ‘‘I certainly hadn’t known he had four brothers whose names and life journeys had been carefully recorded for posterity.’’
But when she learned that the names of Jesus’ sisters were not known, nor, indeed whether he even had any (‘‘they wouldn’t have been deemed important enough to record’’) she became irked and resolved to write their story. But she quickly discovered that was easier said than done. Her research revealed nothing on which she could base even an article, let alone a book.
Undeterred, she decided: ‘‘I’ll just write a novel instead.’’ But even then she faced a few hurdles.
Since travel for research wasn’t an option at the time, she had to rely on her memories. Born and raised in America, she had travelled to Israel twice as a teenager and had lived on a kibbutz at 17. So she dug out all her old photos and taped them all around her computer, cursing herself for not taking more and ‘‘being so careless with the angles’’.
She drew more inspiration from photographic books on Israel and its people, and websites that offered maps and informed conjecture on what the natural and man-made terrain might have looked like 2000 years ago.
But Cannold needed not just an accurate picture of the setting, but also the correct expressions used for activities such as ‘‘making love, falling ill or growing old’’. She set about reading the gospels to absorb the rhythm of the language.
‘‘But I also knew it was important not to have too much ye olde language because it starts to annoy readers and confuse them.’’ Reading, she stresses, should be fun, not hard work.
The biggest hurdle was silencing her inner academic, which niggled whenever she tried to write anything beyond research-based facts. She jokes that it was all she could do to leave off footnotes.
When she gave the first draft to a friend, he told her it contained too many precisely drawn facts and didn’t work as a novel. So she went back to the drawing board and concentrated on writing a story, including historical facts only when really necessary.
The result was worth the effort. Cannold’s tale imagines the back story and de-mystifies the life of ‘‘Joshua’’ (Jesus) of Nazareth, taking known events and establishing plausible explanations for the miraculous and larger-than-life, told from the perspective of his sister, Rachael.
‘‘Why I haven’t received Santa sacks full of expletive-filled, hand-written missives from outraged Christians remains a mystery,’’ Cannold says, laughing.
But while Cannold can probably still expect a terse email from the Vatican, she says it’s the sex scenes that stood out for her teenage sons. Not that they are opposed to sex scenes per se – only ones written by their mother. ‘‘No one likes to think of their parents in that way,’’ she says, laughing. ‘‘My younger son said: ‘They’re a bit graphic’ … He’s marked the pages so his brother can skip them.’’
Looking back, Cannold says writing sex scenes sucks.
‘‘The upside is that whenever a fellow scribe starts snivelling about some difficulty they have with their work, I just tell ’em not to come the raw prawn with me. I had to write a sex scene with Jesus.’’
The Book of Rachael, Text Publishing, $32.95, is in stores now.