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Interview

Life in tablet form

Jerusalemite Shirley Graetz talks about ‘She Wrote on Clay,’ her debut coming-of-age novel about a girl who becomes a scribe in Assyrian times

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Shirley Graetz's debut novel about life in the Assyrian age (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)
Shirley Graetz's debut novel about life in the Assyrian age (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)

Shirley Graetz didn’t set out to become an expert in Assyriology, but passion for ancient tablet writing isn’t generally the kind of thing that’s planned in advance. As a young immigrant to Israel from Dusseldorf, Germany, with a recently earned bachelor’s degree in art history, Graetz was taking a tour guide course in Jerusalem when her teacher showed the group an ancient cuneiform tablet. For Graetz, it was love at first sight.

“She introduced me to a new way of seeing things about the Bible and ancient world,” said Graetz, who’s been living in Jerusalem for nearly 20 years. “It was the beauty of the cuneiforms; when you see a whole tablet, it’s a piece of artwork, but it’s actual writing, and there are stories behind it. I was hooked.”

Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known forms of writing, produced with wedge-shaped marks made with blunt reeds or a crude stylus on clay tablets. It was used between 3000 BCE and 300 BCE, and by the ancient Israelites in their journey from Israel to Babylonia. Graetz was fascinated and wanted to learn more.

She decided to pursue her studies of cuneiform writing, and ended up earning a master’s degree and then a doctorate in the subject from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. She planned to teach and spent her academic years reading ancient letters written for and by women. She focused on a corpus of 14 books with more than 3,000 letters written by women or to women, and in particular those of the naditu women, a monastic class from the upper strata of society who had entered the gagu, a kind of convent, and weren’t allowed to marry or have children.

Shirley Graetz, originally from Dusseldorf, now writing about life in ancient Mesopotamia from the point of view of a young, female scribe (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)
Shirley Graetz, originally from Dusseldorf, now writing about life in ancient Mesopotamia from the point of view of a young female scribe (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)

It was midway through her PhD, soon after the birth of her youngest daughter — she was by then a young married mother of a four- and two-year-old as well — and Graetz was feeling stuck in her doctoral research. She still loved the subject but couldn’t seem to make any headway due to her deep exhaustion and lack of time. But there came a time when she sat at the computer, still in her pajamas, and wrote for three days straight a story about Iltani, a young woman about to enter the gagu, in order to become a scribe.

She felt relieved once she’d written 70 pages, almost as if she could put it aside, but it turned out that she had embarked on her first novel, using the stories and knowledge she’d already gathered in her years of research. Iltani, the protagonist, enters the gagu in Graetz’s debut novel, “She Wrote on Clay,” but “gets a wake-up call when she meets the other women,” learning that it’s “hard work becoming an adult.”

It took a good deal more work, writing and editing to fully conceptualize the story of Iltani, and the book, a fascinating look into the ancient world of Mesopotamia, is about to be published by Hadley Rille Books, an independent publisher based in Kansas that specializes in historical fiction.

Just before she set out on her first book tour in the US, we sat down with Graetz to hear about her writing process.

What made you realize you had a novel in all the research you had been doing?

A cuneiform letter and envelope, the same size as today's electronic tablets (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)
A cuneiform letter and envelope, the same size as today’s electronic tablets (Courtesy Shirley Graetz)

During lectures about the naditu women, I was asked many times if these girls chose to be a naditu, or were they sent there at the wish of their families. The historical sources are silent on the subject, but those questions kept bothering me. I also found that people were expressing the same topics discussed today: the search for justice, quarrels between family members, the care for another person, the longing for love and lust. I came to the conclusion that human nature didn’t change over the last four thousand years, only the writing device. (And even that did not change that much — clay tablet, and the new kind of tablet. It’s almost the same size.)

So with every letter I read, I could not stop imagining what happened to the naditu and what were the circumstances behind each letter. And I thought there was an important story to tell about these women.

You’re fascinated by this time period, but how did you translate it for readers who presumably know nothing of ancient Babylonia?

Well, giving a good historical setting is essential. I wrote many descriptions of the day-to-day life in that time. Architecture, food, clothing and way of speech. I used words in Akkadian throughout the book, and inserted original material, such as letters, contracts and literature to create the atmosphere.

It can be tough to describe places and scenes that haven’t been witnessed for thousands of years. How did you handle that particular feat?

I started to read about food, clothing and architecture in that time period. I looked at many artifacts which were discovered, that draw a portrait of the people and their culture. I also drew the outlines of Iltani’s house, and the temple complex, so every time I talked about it in the book I could visualize it.

Iltani is at the beginning of her adult life; did you set out to write a coming of age story?

No, I had no Idea where the story would lead me. Iltani, the heroine, led me, and I went along with her. It was supposed to be a much longer story, in which she also becomes a woman, a wife and a grandmother. But the story was cut into half by the publishers, and this first part mainly deals with her coming of age. The publisher likes the idea of a second book as well.

You’re new to fiction writing. What aspects of the process were most challenging for you?

Building a coherent plot with real people wasn’t easy. It was also challenging to describe the ancient times. And at the end, waiting for the book to be accepted and receiving reviews from friends.

 Will there be another novel about Iltani?

If there will be a second part to Iltani, it will deal with the problems of married women during that period. Most of the babies did not survive and adoption was very common. Furthermore, after the death of Hammurabi, his son and successor Samsu-iluna was not that successful in managing the empire his father built, which led to wars and revolts.

You’ve also written a children’s book in Hebrew; can you tell us what that’s about?

It’s for early readers in Hebrew, and it’s about Gilgamesh, an ancient hero from Assyrian times. He’s half god, half human, and he causes a lot of mischief in and around an enchanted garden. (Editor’s note: Graetz is still talking to publishers about the Gilgamesh book.)

Graetz is in the US on a book tour promoting “She Wrote on Clay”; check her Facebook page for more information. Read an excerpt to the Graetz’s debut novel here.

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