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Benita Kane Jaro Interview, Part Two

Susan Kelly: A moment ago you spoke of Enid Blyton. Are those children's mystery stories the reason you include a mystery element in so many of your novels [THE LOCK, THE KEY, and THE DOOR IN THE WALL]?

Benita Kane Jaro: I hadn't thought of that! They must be. I still love mysteries, and it's a strong element to build a novel on.

SK: You're an accomplished painter. Does your visual (graphic) eye enhance your writer's (verbal) eye? Vice versa? Or is this a chicken-and-egg question?

BJK: I don't know. Both seem to come out of the same place, and in both I try to put all of myself. There must be a great deal of similarity for that reason, but as far as influence goes, I just don't know.

SK: What was the inspiration for BETRAY THE NIGHT?

BJK: I was flabbergasted when I discovered about thirty years ago that Ovid, the poet of The Metamorphoses, had been exiled. Why hadn't I known? And I was fascinated by the fact that the reason is a mystery.

SK: Why did you make the novel female-centered?

BJK: What an amazing question! You are by no means the first person to ask me that. I expected it when I wrote novels that were male-centered, but no one ever asked me. I never expected it about women. It just never occurred to me how few novels about ancient Rome are about women. And the lives of ancient women are, on examination, very active and complex. Quite different from what was assumed about them when I was growing up.

There is also a technical reason it's about a woman. Once I had decided that I was going after the reasons for Ovid's exile, and that he could not be the narrator (since he knew the reasons, but he never told) then I had to find a narrator. Now, it is easier to make a novel interesting if the narrator has a stake in the story, and preferably if the narrator is the person with the biggest stake in it. The person who seemed to me to most obviously fill that role (after Ovid himself) was his wife.

Also, my publisher [Bolchazy-Carducci] had been asking for a novel about women for some time. So I was happy that this worked out for them. They never pressed me to do one, but I think they were pleased when I did.

SK: Did you have to do a colossal amount of research for this book?

BKJ: Of course. For all of them. That's part of the fun, part of the way I structure my imagination. For BETRAY about six years' worth, I would say.

SK: Why do you like to write historical fiction?

BJK: It's a form, a formal structure, like poetry and mystery stories. If I feel myself limited by boundaries, I feel freer to take risks within them.

SK: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of historical fiction?

BJK: I suppose if I have any advice it applies to historians and critics too: push the limits. If you notice a question, ask it. Then ask the next one. And the next. Never take the first answer. Or the second. Or the third. Go as far as you can. Then go farther.

By the way, this advice applies to all kinds of fiction, too: push your characters into extreme situations, then push them further. Then further still. The difference between the plot of WEST SIDE STORY, which is kitsch, and ROMEO AND JULIET, which is art, is that Romeo and Juliet just don't fall in love. They get married. And consummate the marriage. Then the tragedy becomes inevitable.

SK: Are there any current literary trends you admire or despise?

BKJ: I am entirely ignorant of literary trends, I'm sorry to say. I read genre fiction, and of that little outside mysteries. Some modern ones I like very much.

SK: I know that LORD OF THE RINGS is an important work to you. Would you ever consider writing fantasy?

BKJ: There is a fantastic element to my novels, and to my paintings, too. I don't consider myself a particularly realistic artist--or, truer to say, the reality is internal. The limits I spoke of before seem to me necessary to make sense of what I am doing. I think if I gave up that very firm tie to the earth, my whole oeuvre would just float off into the sky somewhere.
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