Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Interview with Scott Korb, author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine

I have read Scott Korb's Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First Century Palestine and you will want to read this book if:

You proudly identify as a history nerd who loves Sarah Vowell and/or can spend hours watching the History Channel;

You appreciate a writer who can reference both Tacitus (the Roman historian) and Madonna (not just the one who was a virgin but also the one who was like a virgin);

You have a bumper sticker that says I'd rather be reading Flannery O'Connor;

You cannot resist the smart use of a footnote;

You have a sense of humor;

You value good writing;

You enjoy learning surprising things about leprosy.

Here's the publisher description:

For anyone who's ever pondered what everyday life was like during the time of Jesus comes a lively and illuminating portrait of the nearly unknown world of daily life in first-century Palestine.

What was it like to live during the time of Jesus?

Where did people live?

Who did they marry?

And what was family life like?

How did people survive?

These are just some of the questions that Scott Korb answers in this engaging new book, which explores what everyday life entailed two thousand years ago in first-century Palestine, that tumultuous era when the Roman Empire was at its zenith and a new religion-Christianity-was born.

Culling information from primary sources, scholarly research, and his own travels and observations, Korb explores the nitty-gritty of real life back then-from how people fed, housed, and groomed themselves to how they kept themselves healthy. He guides the contemporary reader through the maze of customs and traditions that dictated life under the numerous groups, tribes, and peoples in the eastern Mediterranean that Rome governed two thousand years ago, and he illuminates the intriguing details of marriage, family life, health, and a host of other aspects of first-century life. The result is a book for everyone, from the armchair traveler to the amateur historian. With surprising revelations about politics and medicine, crime and personal hygiene, this book is smart and accessible popular history at its very best.

Interview with Scott Korb

Diana Joseph: What's your background?

Scott Korb: I grew up Catholic in rural Wisconsin. Those seem like important details. I studied briefly at Emerson College in Boston – in their writing and publishing program – before returning home to the University
of Wisconsin – Madison. I studied English and creative writing there and moved to New York to do graduate work at Union Theological Seminary and then Columbia University. For years I thought of myself as a fiction writer and yet over the past few years I’ve begun to think of myself as an historian of sorts, or a writing student-of-history. For my last project – before the book we’ll be talking about below – I was an associate editor on The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, put out beautifully by the University of North Carolina Press. The first book, The Faith Between Us, was co-authored by Jewish writer Peter Bebergal. And here we are now: Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine – that comes out March 18.

Joseph: In the book's introduction "This Is Not A Book About Jesus," you make it clear that your focus is more on his neighbors. How did you decide theirs was the story you wanted to tell?

Korb: Telling Jesus’ story has been done – time and again. Indeed, another point I make in the book’s introduction is that every time someone tries to tell Jesus’ story – going back to the Gospels, even – that person makes Jesus his own. Or her own. Now, while I have a pretty good sense of who I like to think Jesus was, my point in Life in Year One was to avoid the kind of speculation that pops up wherever you see the name. There are other great books that have that as their mission, many of which I used in writing this book – starting, as I said, with the Gospels.

I was interested here in telling what daily life might have been like for a first-century peasant, doing my best to approach what James Agee describes as his effort in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which provides the book’s epigraph): “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.” Regardless on your position on Jesus’ divinity, hardly anyone suggests he was a particularly normal guy. By talking about normal life, I’m maybe painting the backdrop for Jesus.

Finally, though, in order to write in a complete way about life in the first century, I couldn’t help but talk about the powers-that-were. I tried to highlight the interactions between rich and poor, north and south, insider and outsider, Roman and Jew, terrorist and terrorized.

Joseph: You emphasize that there's a lot that can't be definitively known about Palestine in Year One. Describe the kinds of research it took to write your book.

Korb: I quote in the opening pages from the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel, who hears God telling him to “eat this scroll.” That was the first big step in researching the book: eating lots of scrolls, reading lots of books. Smarter people than I have spent their lives digging through the dirt of Palestine looking for material evidence from the past. That is the most reliable evidence we have, and so I rely mainly on that. Thanks to all the archaeologists. I read ancient religious and historical texts – the Gospels, the Talmud, Philo, and Josephus. I traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, met people on the ground, visited the holy sites and took notes. I interviewed archaeologists and rabbis and corresponded with professors. And I read. And I read. J.D. Crossan and Jonathan Reed were especially important. As was Garry Wills and Lee Levine. An important lesson I borrowed from the Gospels, though – pieces of which were translated anew by a Greek scholar I worked with, Patrick Stayer – tells me this: “What goes into the mouth does not corrupt a man, but what comes from the mouth, this corrupts a man.” In other words, none of the scrolls I “ate” in making this book are in any way responsible for any of the mistakes I make within it. In the tradition of scholars everywhere I say: Errors are my own.

Joseph: When sorting through all that research, how did you decide what to keep and what to leave out?

Korb: I had in mind to tell a story in ten chapters – beginning and ending with the two certainties in life: taxes and death. And so, those ideas shaped the first and last chapters. Who paid taxes to whom and how did people die? I settled on the other topics as I learned what we could know for sure (no pork, no icons, ritual baths, stoneware) and how much various details said about people (all markers of Jewish identity). I tried to offer surprises: 97% illiteracy rates, private latrines, imperial monocropping and tenant farming. King Herod probably died of The Itch. Almost everyone who was crucified back then was left hanging and became food for dogs and carrion birds. I also tried to offer readers a way to relate to the people they were reading about, and so quoted contemporary opinion makers and journalists. I included in the epilogue some personal narrative of a trip I took to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

I certainly tried to leave out ideas I thought were dumb – or where I didn’t leave those out I tried to comment on how dumb I thought they were. And in the end, I organized the book ahead of time, altered my outline once (reducing the chapters from fifteen to ten), and wrote to a deadline. That deadline was hard and fast. That alone helped me decide what went belonged and what didn’t belong.

Joseph: What's an interesting bit of information that didn't make it into the book?

Korb: I made a comparison between the babble of the first-century agora and the setting for the HBO series Deadwood, which I was watching as I wrote the book. Here’s how it went, in a footnote: “It strikes me as interesting that this very same issue often comes up in HBO’s Wild West series, Deadwood, a welcome reminder that God’s work at Babel may still be playing itself out. In one episode of Deadwood titled ‘Mr. Wu,’ saloon operator Al Swearengen negotiates a deal with the boss of the camp’s ‘Chinatown’ using two words comprising virtually their entire shared vocabulary: ‘white cocksucker.’”

During the editing process we decided to cut all the cursing from the book: “shit” became “defecate,” etc. And I moved most of the history into the main text and most of the commentary into the footnotes (see below, re footnotes). I think some other bits of information, and a few more curses – e.g., imagining Jesus saying, “Fuck you, Herod!” – hit the cutting room floor.

Joseph: Can you talk about how you constructed the voice in this book? I thought you were witty and funny but not distractingly so, and even more, not in a way that detracted from your credibility.

Korb: First, thanks. That was the hope. My editor and I decided at the outset that this would be a highly readable, sometimes funny, often breezy, and sometimes dark history. To a certain extent, I imagined myself as a tour guide. And the best tour guides – hell, the best teachers – I’ve ever had have sprinkled humor and off-beat information into their discussions of the people and places they were trying to teach me about. So, imagining myself that way helped. And my jokes – if you can call them that – work as basically as possible: I make fun of myself in the book as much as I make fun of anyone else. As for credibility, I tried to address that directly in the introduction by first being very clear that I am not an archaeologist or even a biblical scholar or ancient historian. I’m primarily a good reader. And I do my very best as a writer. (The two go hand in hand.) And I also try to suggest – by quoting a much funnier, much darker, and flatly brilliant Flannery O’Connor – that our integrity is perhaps rooted in trying, but perhaps not always succeeding, in what it is we set out to do.

Joseph: Describe your ideal reader. Did you have this person in mind when you were writing Life in Year One?

Korb: My ideal reader is curious, kind, and patient. She has a good sense of humor. She likes long walks on the beach at sunset.

Joseph: You like footnotes.

Korb: Yes.

Joseph: What's the question about Life in Year One that nobody thinks to ask but you're wanting to talking about?

Korb: No one’s asking about the footnotes. (I’m kidding.) Among many other things, what the footnotes allow me to do is to tell two stories at once – that is, the main historical narrative and then my own contemporary commentary. This book is as much about telling history – and a kind of self-awareness that reveals where we’re coming from, who we are, what we read, what we watch, and so on – as it is about history itself. And footnotes allow me to suss that out as I’m going, to be honest with the reader, both directly and indirectly, about just how difficult telling this history ought to be.

I don’t think writing books and telling stories should be easy. Pleasurable, hard work is how I describe writing to my undergraduate students. I like that the pleasure and hard work is made visible in the writing itself. Along with the imagining that I’m doing. In part that’s why my ideal reader is somewhat patient and curious and kind. Patient and curious enough to hear me out, to see what I’m trying to do. And kind enough to imagine along with me the lives of first-century peasants not named Jesus.

Joseph: What are you working on next?

Korb: There’s a stack of essays I have to grade, for one thing. But I think there’s a novel in me yet. But that’s not next. I’m not really talking about what’s next.

Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (Bloomsbury, 2007) and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (UNC Press, 2008), winner of the American Historical Association's 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book, due out March 18, is Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr.


Rachael Hanel said...

Thanks for this great interview, Diana! And yes, I'm a history nerd, so I will definitely check out this book!

Mr. Friend Boy said...

Awesome interview Diana and Scott. Writing about history and the research that goes into writing good historical accounts, is flat-out H.A.R.D. work. I appreciate witnessing someone doing it very well, Scott. I really enjoyed what you tell your undergrads about the writing process amounting to lots of hard, pleasurble work. So true. Thanks for the wise words.

Chrissy Snow said...

I know my husband and I would love this book-- even more so now that I have met the personality behind the book. I wonder if anyone was disappointed or angry that the book did not focus on Christ, as if that were blasphemous in itself.