Excerpts from the private journals of Barbara “Babs” Rathbun
January 1 Happy New Year! Could I possibly have a better job? I spent last night counting down to the brand-new year on the upper deck, next to the topless area that, thankfully, was not in use due to the hour. Though I must say I’ve seen plenty of those people only minimally interested in the sun and mostly interested in the parade, if you know what I’m saying. Last night I danced with not one but three doctors, one of whom is recently single and from SPAIN. He showed me how they eat one grape for every chime that sounds at midnight. Muy interesante. Unfortunately, he (Miguel? Manuel? Something like that) had to catch an early flight out of port to get back to saving the world, one surgery at a time. I certainly did not stand in his way. Where would all of us be without professionals like him?!
February 12 Having a very difficult time getting a hold of my daughter, who appears to be stuck in the late nineties with regards to her emotional maturity. I’ve already written at length about her similarly troubling FASHION time warp and will not take more time on the subject here. To date: twelve phone calls, ten answering-machine messages, two postcards, all unanswered. Considering taking more drastic measures.
Date Unknown Mia is pregnant by that wretch of a Scandinavian. I’m nearly beside myself with horror and grief. I never should have let her watch that sex ed. video in sixth grade. My work experience has been called upon without pause; there’s something so comforting to people in having a sunny disposition in the face of crisis. Just this morning, as I was picking up Mia’s mail, her neighbor, a very nice black man who might be related to Barack Obama, said I looked like the face of sweetness itself. I smiled a winner smile to show my gratitude but had to wipe away tears on my way back up to Mia’s place. Goes to show: The show must go on but the actress leads a lonely life. Listened to Barbara Streisand the rest of the morning.
May 21 Wazzup wazzup wazzup! I’m hip to the hop with urban culture and putting down ROOTS in Chi-town. This is a city that explodes with high adventure and new experiences, not the least of which is soul food. Silas and I have visited three of his favorite restaurants. At Sugar Snap’s, I became fast friends with our waitress, Shanelle, who has invited me to her house to teach me how to braid hair. She swears it doesn’t matter that my last cut left me with no longer than two inches of length. I was forced to believe her. I mean, remember when Oprah showed up one day—just like that—with long and perfectly coiffed curls? If she can do it in Chicago, so can I! Peace out.
June 3 Mia is not far enough along to be acting so miserable. She absolutely wigged today when I surprised her by cleaning out her closet. Apparently waffle-print henleys are still all the rage among tree-huggers. She insisted on keeping ALL NINE.
June 30 Chicago has lost its luster. The heat today will reach a scorching 101 degrees, no breeze, 92% humidity. WHY oh WHY did I quit my job?!?!
July 15 Sweet Silas brought me a bouquet of baby’s breath today. Told me it reminded him of me, beautiful and delicate but undervalued by those who need my help. That man made me cry, I tell you. August, doesn’t matter the exact day. Hot, hot, hot, miserably miserable. I refuse to take public transportation just on the sweat principle. Even children seem tired out by summer. Were there not Lake Michigan, I think the entire city would go mad. I tried discussing the lunacy of living here with Mia, but she was not particularly receptive. Must be the final trimester. That and the swelling.
September 30 Mia’s due date, come and almost gone. I’m so nervous, I’ve taken to giving free manicures to all the women in my building. Warned Silas tonight that when I’m finished with Mrs. Whittinghouse on the second floor (a prospect that gives me the willies, I must admit), he’s next. He threatened to bring Mia over to the hospital himself and have them induce.
4 Asiago bagels from your favorite bagel shop 4 large portabello caps
Sauce: Soy sauce, sake or white wine, lemon juice
Garnish: Romaine leaves Sliced white cheddar, Pecorino Romano, or in a pinch, Swiss Dill-infused mayo
1. Slice bagels and spread with butter. Set aside.
2. Brush mushroom caps with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
3. Fire up the grill and slap on the mushrooms, trying not to think about how much better a fillet would be. Grill 2 minutes or so on each side. During the last minute add the bagels to toast. Watch the bread carefully or this step could end badly.
4. Meanwhile (or before you start, depending on how adept you are at multitasking), pour into a small saucepan ~1/3 c. soy sauce, ~1/3 c. sake or white wine, and some fresh lemon juice. Please don’t press me on exact measurements; you’ll know if it’s wrong and then you just doctor it up. Let this concoction reduce for 10 minutes or so.
5. Mayo: Chop up some fresh dill or smoosh some dried dill in your hands. Add to mayo and mix. I also add a splash of lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Again, exact measurements are not really the issue here.
6. Assemble sandwiches. Bagel first, then mushroom, reduced wine sauce, romaine, cheese if desired, and a spread of mayo.
7. Present to vegetarian love interest with nonchalance, a smile, and the promise of a chocolate dessert. Make this enough times and she won’t even mind that her mushroom shares a grill with your steak.
Did anything about the characters or events of 86 Bloomberg Place surprise you as you wrote the series?
Because I never outline my stories, I’m often caught off guard by my characters. I was shocked when Kendall slept with Matthew Harmon and even more shocked when she went down to LA to stalk him. When it turned out she was pregnant, I wondered, What’s it going to take to get to this girl? Then I was surprised to unravel Lelani’s story and why she’d left Emma with her parents in Maui. I was almost as surprised when Lelani stood up to her mom and fought to get Emma back. Then I was shocked when Kendall almost drowned, and there was a brief time when I thought she might lose her baby. Instead, she found her faith—and Killiki. That was fun. So, yes, you could say I get surprised all the time.
How much of your own life is represented in the lives of these four women? Do you identify more with Megan, Lelani, Anna, or Kendall?
I feel like I have a bit of all of them in me. Like Megan, I tend to be fairly grounded and practical. Also, I worked for an interior designer, and I’ve organized/decorated for several weddings. Like Lelani, I can sometimes be a quiet observer as well as a peacemaker. Like Anna, I worked as an editor for a small publishing house. Kendall is probably least like me, although I have to admit to having done some pretty impetuous things in my lifetime. Which one of these characters ended up being your favorite in the series?
Kendall, for sure! At first she made me crazy and I wanted to shake her. But at the same time, I loved her childlike qualities. She was fun and impulsive and slightly naïve in a worldly sort of way. But she was also on a path to self-destruct. Still, it was fun to see a character go through all that and finally find God in a big way that totally transformed her life. I believe in those kinds of miracles.
You’ve written so many novels for and about young women. Why is this audience so close to your heart?
Partly because I came to faith as a teenager and am fully aware of what a huge impact that had on my life. But besides that, I think it’s really hard being twenty-something these days. Romantic relationships are tricky to navigate, friends come and go, careers don’t necessarily stay on track, parents can be difficult, and what happens when you make a bad choice? My hope is that readers will live/learn vicariously through these characters and be encouraged to live their best life.
If your readers could take away one idea, promise, or hope from the 86 Bloomberg Place series, what would you want that to be?
I’d like them to feel hopeful that all things are possible when you let God be the major influence in your life.
1. Would you have counseled Lelani or Kendall to elope? How would that decision have affected their friendships? Their family dynamics? Their romances?
2. Lelani and Kendall had to deal with the “interference” of Mrs. Mendez and Mrs. Weis in their celebrations and plans. What did you admire about how they handled these challenges? What would you criticize?
3. How did you feel when Gil suggested Lelani move their wedding to Maui for her mother’s sake? In what ways did the idea help or hurt Lelani? Do you think Alana’s apology was connected to this gesture?
4. What gave Kendall the strength to overcome her sisters’ condescension and exclusion?
5. If you were Lelani, would you have agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Ben? How would you have handled that encounter?
6. Megan observed that Kendall and Nana had a lot in common. What were their best common qualities? Do you have a friend or loved one who is both very different from you and a lot like you? What does this relationship mean to you?
7. What do you think was the root cause of Anna’s and Megan’s “man trouble”? Could it have been prevented? Why or why not?
8. Was Anna’s makeover of Chelsea selfish or altruistic?
9. Compare the ways in which each character’s mother influenced her choices and self-confidence. Identify examples of how a negative action on the mother’s part nevertheless led to a positive result in the daughter’s life.
10. Over the course of the series, which character’s journey most closely mimicked your own? What lessons learned by this character connected most personally with you?
1. Where did you get Mbube’s name and how do you pronounce it?
Mbube is a Zulu word for lion, and it is also a form of African song, sung most often by men. Mbube is pronounced “Em-boo-beh.” I like to think of him as Bob Marley meets the Hulk. I don’t know why, but all the guardian angels in my stories appear in my mind as Africans. Africa was the continent that sheltered Jesus Christ as a young child when King Herod was hunting for Jesus to kill Him. God reminds us in the Bible that “out of Egypt I called my Son.” Africa gave shelter to a young Christ, to God, and I believe there is an evil out there that has never forgiven Africa for that. If Africa protected the young Jesus, it’s easy to imagine angels as supernatural Africans who protect us, too.
2. You’re saying you believe in the Devil?
I believe there is an active, intelligent evil in this world, an evil that is at work to destroy everything God considers beautiful. This evil has several names in Scripture: the Enemy, the Evil One, Satan, Lucifer. Those names have become so perverted in our culture that I hate to even reference them. The Devil to us is a mascot for canned ham. It’s a masterful piece of public relations, don’t you think? The Devil as a mascot for ham, angels as sweet cherubs that offer no protection, and Jesus as a wise teacher in cool sandals but not really capable of outrageous miracles. Everything in that scenario is so innocuous; it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. There is a shocking truth hiding beneath that thin frosting. Someone is hoping we don’t scrape through it.
3. How did you choose the subject matter for each book in the Scribe series?
I picked the three most important moments in medieval history that changed women’s lives forever: • Anne Boleyn gave us the right to read, including, but not limited to, the right to read the Bible. (And thus, book one, In the Shadow of Lions.) • The women who survived the Black Death, though their names are lost to us, created a culture of survivors who launched the great Renaissance of science and art. We, too, must answer the question they faced: Amid so much suffering and pain, how then shall we live? (And thus, book two, In the Arms of Immortals.) • For the final book in the series, I will be telling the tale of the witch hunts in medieval Europe. Women with strong wills, strong minds, or women who no longer had families were targeted for death. “Christians” both instigated the murders and stopped them. The Church was forced to confront perilous questions: What, and who, defines a woman? Are women more prone to sin and moral weakness? Do women have an equal place in God’s kingdom? (And thus, book three, In the Eyes of Eternity.) I think book three will be, by far, the most difficult book to write in the series. But it is my belief that we are indeed “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” These women of our past are waiting for us to make courageous, dangerous decisions … or suffer again as they did.
4. Did you exaggerate the symptoms of the plague? It seems that people died very quickly. Were you just in a hurry to finish the book?
Eyewitness accounts claim victims could die within a matter of minutes. Many stories were of a plague victim walking down the street, and if someone went out to meet them, the healthy person died within minutes of contact. Some historians and scientists refuse to believe these claims, for the claims do not fit our modern beliefs of the plague. We also assume past generations were not as smart as we are. (This applies to the Bible as well. Although the books that compose the Bible were written by eyewitnesses, we refuse to believe what they tell us because it doesn’t fit our modern beliefs.) One question I try to ask myself as I research is, “What if it is all true? What if those eyewitnesses were right, and some died within minutes?” We would be able to immediately rule out all the plagues we know, which take much, much longer to kill. We would be left with no explanation … and we are of an age that cannot bear to live without explanation. Which was, for me, the greatest problem of the Black Death and this novel: the question of why? Why did God allow a plague to sweep in and decimate the world? We often hear the estimate that the Black Death killed up to half of Europe. That’s true, but we should also say that the plague wiped out a huge number of people all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and even remote frozen islands. Why would God allow that? Was He mad? After all, every plague mentioned in the Bible was associated with a divine punishment for bad behavior. God had set a precedent of sending plague as punishment. When the plague struck, everyone asked, “Why?” They immediately began pointing fingers. The Jews, in particular, were blamed. Thank God, the wise Pope spoke out against this belief and ordered that Jews be left unharmed. (But he was unable to stop many mass murders.) I can only begin to explain this violence when I remember the AIDS epidemic at its beginning. The hate and violent speech directed at gays stunned me. Those claiming to be Christians said they “knew” as a biblical certainty that God had sent AIDS to punish gay people. (Children were dying, too, but this was conveniently ignored. Was God mad at them or did His divine wrath just have a scattershot pattern?) So much damage is done by Christians when we attempt to answer the question of why. No answer suffices, no words can heal that wound. It is a sacred suffering. Perhaps if God gave us answers, we would find comfort in them instead of Him. How many senseless words are spoken at bedsides and funerals? “It was God’s will.” “This was God’s plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” We find comfort in them and we shouldn’t. There may be a truth in those statements, but none of them is the whole Truth. We have to find comfort in the mystery of God, and there are no human words that can reach into that place and illuminate it. We were not created with minds that allow us to comprehend the ultimate answer, yet God left us with the capacity to question. That’s the mystery in itself, I guess.
5. You say the Black Death was the death of the angels. How did you see this reflected in art from the period?
In the art that was created after the Black Death, Christ became more “human.” Crucifixes began to show a suffering Christ, a God in pain who was naked and bleeding. Christ was still portrayed as divine and “untouchable” in many paintings, with gold and illuminating light, but we now needed to emotionally connect with His suffering. Art also began to show Death walking among the living, walking with priests, menacing unsuspecting women from dark shadowy corners. A fascination with demons crept onto our canvases, while angels went from strong, sizable defenders to chubby babies who could barely hold their heads up, much less carry a sword. Art from this period has profoundly impacted our spiritual lives today. We still picture angels as sweet, innocuous beings, while we imagine demons as powerful creatures to be feared. We are out of balance.
6. How long does it take to write a novel?
I don’t know. I’ve never written one. I have, however, written a lot of sentences. I write one sentence, and then do this over and over, day after day, until I find I have filled up hundreds of pages. Then I begin deleting sentences, one by one, over and over, day after day, until I find I have deleted dozens of pages. Then I send it to my editor and bury myself face first in a plate of chocolates. If I begin thinking about writing an entire novel, I’ll choke from stress. Novels are big undertakings. But sentences? I can write those.
1. The plague was merciless. Suffering was extreme. Everyone was in anguish. Why do you think a merciful God would allow this suffering? How can we call God merciful when thousands, or millions, are brutalized?
2. How can we learn to live without answers? Does this make us fools or faithful? Explain your answer.
3. What are we to do with the anguish we feel when we (or those we love) are victimized without reason and there is no justice to be had on earth?
4. Only Lazarro, as priest, was allowed to hear confession and give last rites (Last Unction). As the plague progressed, the pope allowed all women to assume this role too. Priests could not attend to all the dying, so women were allowed to comfort others in the name of Christ. This was the first time women were allowed to speak in God’s name to a dying world. Why was this moment important in women’s history? Do you see any ripple effects of this decision down through the ages and in society today? If so, name a few.
5. What does it mean to be healed? Is it only physical, or is there more to it? Do you believe there can be total healing on earth? Why or why not?
6. In his final scene, Del Grasso tells Gio to never ask the question “Why?” Instead, ask the question “How?” In your life, have you ever been tangled up in the question of why? If so, tell the story. In what way(s) have you let go of the whys and started exploring the hows? “How, then, shall you live?” (Bonus points for anyone who can find the Scripture verse that inspired this line!)
7. The Black Death was called “the death of the angels.” It was the time when the Age of Fear began. Which rules your life: faith or fear? Why? Why is it easier to respond to a crisis out of fear, rather than out of faith?
8. If you could change the ending to In the Arms of Immortals, which two people would be alive and married to each other at the end of the story? Why would you choose this ending?
9. If you could go back in time and witness any event in history, what would it be and why?
10. If you could talk to your guardian angel, what questions would you want to ask?