Author’s latest heroine is embroiled in 12th century battle for Holy Land.

For S.J. Schwaidelson, putting a new book in the hands of readers is like sending your child off to kindergarten. “You hope the other kids like her, too,” she said.

That is especially true of the Mendota Heights author’s latest novel. The Pomegranate (Wp Press, 2021, 566 pp.) tells the story of Batsheva, the daughter of a Jewish merchant in 12th century Spain who is kidnapped on her journey to be married and in captivity becomes the unwilling concubine of a sheikh. The sheikh joins the battle to defeat the Christian Crusaders of Western Europe who have occupied Jerusalem and the region around it, and Batsheva is drawn into the struggle.

Batsheva is named after Schwaidelson’s maternal grandmother. “She was an amazing woman,” Schwaidelson said. “Widowed with three children ages 13, 14 and 16, she was left to starve by her husband’s brother and business partner, so she went into business for herself. She was the most unassuming woman, but made of steel.

“My genre is strong women in uncommon circumstances,” Schwaidelson said. “And Batsheva is everything every woman in a sense aspires to be. She is stronger than she thinks. She thinks like a chess player, always seeing a dozen moves ahead, yet she retains an innate kindness and compassion. She is forthright but skilled at manipulating those who need moving. I think every woman has those qualities and skills. Otherwise, the human race would’ve died out eons ago.”

Susan Schwaidelson
Author Susan Schwaidelson at home in Mendota Heights. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Batsheva’s ability to survive and thrive in captivity is foretold when she is still at home in Spain. Sitting under a pomegranate tree, her mother tells her that “just like a pomegranate, you are full of seeds of knowledge. You already know what to do and how to do it.”

“In every story, there is a kernel of truth,” Schwaidelson said. “In this one, there was a girl who was abducted en route to her wedding. It was believed she was given to a local leader as tribute. I made up the rest.”

As a backdrop for Batsheva’s story, Schwaidelson incorporates the historical conflicts among people of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. “The Crusades are usually presented from the Christian viewpoint,” she said. “This is a story about non-Christians dealing with an invasion into their own country.”

 

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As a backdrop for Batsheva’s story, Schwaidelson incorporates the historical conflicts among people of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. “The Crusades are usually presented from the Christian viewpoint,” she said. “This is a story about non-Christians dealing with an invasion into their own country.”

The novel takes readers from Spain to North Africa to the Middle East where Batsheva is severely wounded in battle and captured by a Crusader who takes her back across the Mediterranean to his home in the north of England. The book includes a map of those continents, a cast of historical characters and a glossary of words and phrases in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Greek.

Research included two trips to Israel

Schwaidelson’s research for the book included a couple of trips to Israel where she walked the routes that Batsheva followed. “Being there gave me an increased sense of place,” she said. “To put my hand on stones laid in the 12th century was just incredible.”

Schwaidelson also studied the biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the former queen of France who became queen of England and regent while her son, King Richard the Lionheart, was away on Crusade. “Strong women have always existed,” Schwaidelson said. “Eleanor is a prime example, which is why she and Batsheva get along so well.”

Schwaidelson strives to make her characters three-dimensional. “You want them to jump off the page,” she said, “to be compelling. I’ve had characters come to me in the car and say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t say that.’ When I get home, I’ll sit down with that section and decide what has to be said, what is the message and why is that character sitting on my shoulder in the car telling me, ‘I wouldn’t say that’ or ‘I wouldn’t do that.’”

Never say ‘writer’s block’

Schwaidelson, who is is originally from New York, moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a master’s degree in theater at the University of Minnesota. After meeting her late husband Ziggy, and while raising their two sons, she wrote and directed children’s plays.

Her two previous novels and the two novels she is currently working on all present strong women in uncommon circumstances. Dream Dancer (2017) tells about a doctoral candidate who travels to Peru to explore a dying culture only to discover a community full of life. In Lingua Galactica (2018), a Navy lieutenant and government linguist is stalked by a visiting diplomat and uses her training, strength and intelligence to master her fate.

“Both of the books I’m working on are set in Saint Paul,” Schwaidelson said. “Both are contemporary. One is about an arts lawyer, the second is about a woman who designs wedding dresses. Both characters are strong women, but they’re in very different places in their lives and their lives are radically different from each other.

“I have a folder full of first chapters, ideas and character sketches, so I’m never without something to think about if I get bogged down,” Schwaidelson said. “I tend not to say ‘writer’s block’ because I can always write, but sometimes the characters are less forthcoming than I’d like, so I put them in novel jail for a bit. Sometimes distancing myself from a character or situation helps me to unravel whatever knot is bugging me.”

Writer with an alter ego

Schwaidelson’s husband once wrote a very successful blog. After his death, she began her own blog in 2010. She titled it, “The Wifely Person Speaks,” and has maintained it ever since, focusing on current affairs. “At first I thought I was going to write a widow’s blog,” she said, “but I was boring myself. Now my blog is read globally. I’ve had 608 entries since 2010,” and as of the second week of March she had totaled 433,465 hits.

“When I’m wearing the ‘Wifely Person’ hat, it’s a different set of brain muscles,” Schwaidelson said. “She is my alter ego, and I love her, too.”

Copies of The Pomegranate may be purchased through sjschwaidelson.com.

—Anne Murphy

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