Saturday, November 01, 2008

November Book Club: THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, by Sherry Jones

Welcome to the November Book Club meeting!

For the ease of commenting and paging, this post will contain a short interview with Sherry Jones, and the post below this will contain some discussion topics.

Please feel free to propose other discussion topics! This book is a rich and intriguing subject from several perspectives.

Interview with Sherry Jones, author of The Jewel of Medina

Thanks again for stopping by today, Sherry. We'll start with my standards. How did you land your agent?

I began querying agents before The Jewel of Medina was really ready. That's a common mistake we beginning writers make, I've heard: We get so darned excited about what we're doing, and we're so convinced that the first draft is golden, that we lose patience and perspective! The first agent I queried was Carolyn Jenks, the agent who sold Anita Diamant's book The Red Tent. She loved the first three chapters but then she said the remainder "failed to sustain my enthusiasm." I vowed not to send it out again until it was finished.


When I finished the first draft, convinced it was a ready-made literary gem, I decided to shop it around. I called author Paul Vandevelder, whom I'd written about for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana, and asked if he had any contacts. He called Natasha Kern, who agreed to read the manuscript -- and who sent it back a month later with a long, detailed letter about how much she disliked my book! I felt so frustrated. "I don't have any idea what I'm doing," I told my then-husband, who suggested I hire a professional editor to help me get the book into shape. I found a couple of "book doctor" services recommended, if I recall correctly, in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, and hired a freelance editor. Daniel Zitin was tremendously helpful, telling me that what I had was NOT a novel, but rather "a series of interesting vignettes." Following his advice I re-wrote the book, then found another editor to help with the second draft. After that, I wrote to Natasha again and asked if she'd re-consider, and she said yes. One month later, she called and said she loved it! So I guess I could say that the first agent who read my complete manuscript took me on as a client!

That's quite a romantic story about how you and Natasha found each other; I have read about what a great team you guys are. So, how did you get your book deal?
Natasha sent my book to 21 publishing houses, then set a date for an auction. One publisher made a pre-empt offer but it was small, since the house was a smaller house. Then Random House made its offer and we accepted it. We were thrilled with the $100,000 advance for a two-book deal. Of course, I didn't get it all at once. I got part at signing, part on acceptance, and would have received the rest in three more increments over two years.

What was the moment you decided to write about A'isha?

I was working out in the gym (strength metaphor alert!) and thinking about what I'd read about her. I realized that I hadn't been able to stop thinking about A'isha, and so I knew I'd finally found my subject after more than 40 years of wanting to write a novel but having no idea what to write about.
You've had so much more press coverage than most debut authors would ever get; do you think it's been more of a good thing, or a bad?
It's been great publicity, but it's been hard on my book and, at times, on my soul! Plenty of people seemed to derive great pleasure from trashing "The Jewel of Medina" when they hadn't read it, and now people want to say it's not well-researched. But it is, very thoroughly researched. Fortunately, a German Islamic scholar just published a piece in FAZ newspaper lauding the historical accuracy of the book and hailing it as an important contribution. Whew! Now, whenever my book gets attacked again, I can go back and read his comments!

Also, I'm hearing that a number of Barnes and Noble stores are declining to display my book. That's a drag. If not for all the controversy, they'd have it out front-row-center.

One the other hand, my book and its sequel now have publishers in the U.S., Serbia (where it went all the way to number 1), Russia, Macedonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy (published in October by Newton and Compton without incident), Germany (coming out Nov. 3 by Pendo Verlag), Denmark, Poland, Albania, Slovenia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Spain, Brazil, UK, and Portugal.

Are you excited to write about the next chapter in A'isha's life?
Yes, the sequel is finished and in the hands of Beaufort Books' editors. There is talk of bringing it out this spring in the US and in Germany. That's very exciting, because it's a better book! It covers the time in A'isha's life after Muhammad's death, when she really came into her own as a political being. It also provides the point of view of her nemesis, Ali, so the reader gets a much more well-rounded portrait of both A'isha and Ali. My working title is "A'isha and Ali," although that will probably change.

I also envision a third book in the trilogy, about Sukayna bint al-Hussein, the great-granddaughter of Muhammad, the granddaughter of Ali. She was an early Arabic feminist, living in Mecca during the height of that's city's intellectual glory, and a fascinating woman. Another inspiration!!!


Merry Monteleone said...


First, I love that you're doing this series! Second, don't kill me, but I haven't read it yet... I just picked up my copy this week and with the hubbub with Halloween, I haven't been able to sit down with it. So, I'm not going to participate with the book discussion below - but I'll come back to it after I've read it and probably post a book review at my place.

I've been looking forward to reading this one, and I have to say, I might have missed it without all the media attention it's gotten. The Red Tent was one of my favorites. The writing was beautiful and I loved where she went with the story. I've heard some Christians bristle at it, because, obviously, the fiction doesn't stay true to biblical accounts - but then, how could it? It's a full novel and I think the character's only mention was a sentence long in the bible.

To me, this type of historical fiction is great because it will bring a spotlight on certain times, people, and points in our combinded history that people often overlook - it gives enough of a springboard that it can invoke interest and encourage people to research and study on their own.

So much of the negative attention seems to be aimed at the thinking that people will read the fiction and believe that rendition to be fact... that line of thought, though, implies that the reading public is mostly comprised of idiots - it's patronizing. Most people know the difference between fiction and non.

That's about all I can add right now, but I'll definitely be reading it and when I post on it, I'll let you know.

moonrat said...

No worries, Merry. We're all crazy busy! The nice thing about the internet is links stay active forever, so a "book club meeting" can last a year! Anyway, I'll look forward to your thoughts whenever you get around to it!

Ann Victor said...

Hi Sherry (& Moonrat)
Thanks for sharing this with us.It's very encouraging reading about such a succesful debut!

This comment caught my eye "...after more than 40 years of wanting to write a novel but having no idea what to write about...". Would you mind sharing with us how old you were when you first realised you wanted to write a novel? And where there other reasons other than no subject that held you back from starting to right at, say, 20 years of age?

Best of luck with your sales and sequels!

Ann Victor said...

Oops. Sorry. Blame it on the heat frying my brain. That should be

...WERE (not where) there any other reasons etc etc

ChrisEldin said...

I've been looking forward to this one as well.

This is such a terrific interview! Thank you *both* for sharing your time in pulling this together!!!

Best wishes for fantastic sales and reviews!!

Pamala Knight said...

Hi Sherry (and Moonie!),

First, congratulations on your book and I wish you much success with it. I picked it up two days ago, but haven't had a chance to finish it, yet.

My question is which other works besides The Red Tent, influenced your decision to write about Aisha and which point of her life helped you to decide where to begin your tale? Did you want to tell the early portion because you needed the readers to understand and have a backstory in mind when you were able to take us on the journey that really called out to you?


Sherry Jones said...

Please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your questions, ladies!

First of all, Ann Victor, I have wanted to be a writer since the second grade. I loved writing poems in school and I have loved to read since I learned on my mother's knee at age 4 (thanks, Mom!). I wrote poetry and short stories all through school. Although was first in my class when I graduated from high school, I had few higher-education opportunities because my family was quite low-income and my parents had little education, no connections, and no methods for navigating the "system." So I went to community college and began working as a newspaper reporter in my hometown. So I ended up becoming a writer, after all, but not the kind I'd envisioned! Working full-time and finishing my college degree little by little (I finally graduated in 2006) took up most of my creative time -- until I found A'isha. Then she took front-row-center in my life (except for my daughter); I even quit my job to finish these books!

Pamala, I chose to start with A'isha's engagement to Muhammad because that seemed to me to be the beginning of her tale -- unfortunately, her life was defined by Muhammad's life. If she hadn't married him, we might not even know who she was. Some who criticize her as an unlikely character because of her desire to reach her fullest potential overlook the fact that she wasn't the only empowered woman of her day. But she was certainly the most famous.

Thank you all for participating in this discussion. I will try to answer any more questions more quickly. I am writing now from Missoula, Mont., where I did a very successful reading and booksigning yesterday. Next stop: Seattle, where I'll be appearing at the University Bookstore Nov. 6.

moonrat said...

Oo, a booksigning! I'm glad after all the kerfuffle that your publicity team has been able to launch the book properly.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Thanks for the interview, Moonrat. I was particularly inspired to read about the amount of revision this author was able and willing to do. We all need that kind of stamina and determination.

Sherry Jones said...

Yes, I'm convinced that is what it takes to get published -- complete and total dedication to the book, no matter what! That's why you need passion for it. Otherwise, you'll lose interest, lose heart, and possibly lose your chance of getting published.

I was inspired by John Gardner, who said that if you write a novel that is good, someone will publish it. Doesn't that make the idea of publishing seem more accessible somehow? It did for me.