Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Lost Catacomb: Shifra Hochberg's award-winning thriller

The research behind Shifra Hochberg's award-winning novel The Lost Catacomb was an effort of titanic proportions, involving reading over 100 non-fiction books. Dr. Hochberg holds a Ph.D. in English literature from New York University and has published over 20 academic essays, mainly in the field of nineteenth-century fiction and feminist literary theory. She currently teaches at Ariel University in Israel and makes her home in Jerusalem.

In the course of writing The Lost Catacomb, Shifra visited Italy 14 times, making on-site visits to all locations in the novel and meeting with the families of Italian Holocaust survivors. She was also privileged to view a special collection of Jewish catacomb artifacts at the Vatican Museum that is normally closed to visitors.

Reader's Ravorite Award
MJN: Congratulations on the marvelous accomplishment. There is a lovely silver medal on the cover of your book. How does one go about obtaining it? And is it glued on to the existing books?
SH: The medal was awarded based on a 5-star review of my novel on Reader's Favorite, a website that claims it is "The fastest growing book review and award contest site on the Internet" and that is the "Recipient of the 'Honoring Excellence' and 'Best Websites for Authors' awards by the Association of Independent Authors." As I recall, my publisher contactedreadersfavorite.com to request the review. The medal was incorporated into the cover art itself for both print and digital versions of The Lost Catacomb.

The research behind the novel
MJN: Let's talk about the heavy-hitter competitors in your genre. You know I'm referring to the Dan Browns of the world. How do you differentiate yourself from them.
SH: This is a hard one, since I need to be politically correct. Like Dan Brown's fiction, for instance, my novel is based on serious academic research. I must have read over 100 non-fiction books and monographs on the history of the Catholic Church, its relationship to the Jewish people over the centuries, and the tragic history of the Holocaust, with emphasis on events in Italy. However, my characters are more realistic than those of the "hard-hitters," both in terms of their actions within the framework of plot and even their physical attributes. No one has "burgundy" colored hair (gee whiz, doesn't Sophie have a good hairdresser?), nor are there any dwarfs, crazed albinos, or super-villains who have been altered by massive doses of steroids. (That said, I'd love to have Dan Brown's sales record!) In addition, because of my professional background – namely, a Ph.D. in English literature – I incorporated a wide variety of literary subtexts and extended metaphors into The Lost Catacomb to add heft and resonance to plot, theme, and character development. These include allusions to Faulkner, George Eliot, Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Milton's Paradise Lost, the latter echoing the motif of loss that structures the novel. As for the extended metaphors, these include the stars as symbols of the basic existential conflict between the limitations of human choice or freedom of will and the possibility of a fore-ordained historical narrative from which, sadly, there is no escape. The myth of Andromeda also runs as an undercurrent in The Lost Catacomb, representing the possibility of rescue from the monstrous forces of history.

Touching a raw nerve
MJN: You currently live and teach in Israel, so are clearly very in touch with your heritage. Your book explores some dark episodes in Jewish history. Sometimes, when you write on touchy subjects like that, and if you happen to have a genetic link to that ethnic group, people assume you have some sort of vendetta or agenda, or that you put yourself into an apostolic position, like Mariamne Rufina in your novel. Do you resent these sorts of assumptions?
SH: No, I don't resent assumptions of this sort. These assumptions do, however, show that I have touched a raw nerve or two, which was actually my intention when I wrote the novel. It was important to me to portray, accurately, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people throughout the centuries since, according to many historians — some of them former Catholic priests, such as James Carroll and John Cornwell — the teachings of the Catholic Church actually helped create an atmosphere that ultimately enabled the Holocaust to take place. Carroll, for instance, writes in Constantine's Sword that the idea of Jewishness being connected to bloodlines and the need for conversos to pretend that they were Old Christians during the Spanish Inquisition led directly to the Nazi belief that converted Jews were still Jews and needed to be exterminated. There were, by the way, several passages in the original draft of The Lost Catacomb that I decided to delete since I was afraid that I would have difficulty finding a publisher who would not be offended by the facts, even though they were presented in the guise of fiction.
Multi-dimensional romance
MJN: Nicola and Bruno clearly have big brains. As we discover, they have healthy libidos, nourished by the clandestine, high-pressure nature of their work. I brought it up in my review, and I wanted to give you a chance to talk about the romantic relationship between the two leading characters. Was it really necessary to throw in romance? Do you think it adds to the story? Or was it just a side effect of two fairly attractive professionals working side by side?
SH: I think the romantic relationship between Nicola and Bruno has several dimensions. First of all, I wanted the three time periods that structure the novel to have some parallels, which included the three interfaith couples, kind of like history repeating itself, though clearly the romance between Mariamne and the Pope and that of Niccolò and Elena were doomed, while Bruno and Nicola have a chance for happiness. I also wanted Nicola, who is vulnerable and lacking in confidence about her own attractiveness and sexuality, to find some sort of emotional security. And of course, for better or worse, romance and sex sell! I didn't want the novel to be dry and to appeal only to a narrow reading audience.

Spirals of history
MJN: In some way, the structure of your novel reminds me of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Your narrative shifts from one dimension to another. Time loses its linearity. Can you elaborate on this time travel?
SH: I would have to say—yet again—that I wanted to show how history repeats itself and how human beings struggle against the forces of history, sometimes successfully, but frequently not. Loss becomes a universal existential condition, expressed in the lost lovers, lost treasure, lost catacombs, lost identity, and lost personal history that pervade all three time frames in my novel.

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