Over the years, Roberta Rich attended what is now called the Vancouver Writers Fest many times, watching a succession of authors discuss their latest releases and, like many others in the audience (I suspect), dreaming of being there one day with her own book.
“I had wanted to be published for so long and I had attended so many seminars and so many workshops and so many conferences, including the [Vancouver] writers’ festival and just thought – oh, I so want to be on the other side of that podium. I so, so want that,” Ms. Rich says.
On Saturday, Ms. Rich, 67, will take up her position on the other side of the podium at the festival for the first time with The Harem Midwife, the sequel to her international bestselling debut novel, The Midwife of Venice – published when she was 65.
“I’m a Capricorn,” Ms. Rich said on Tuesday, just before the festival’s opening party. “I’m a late bloomer.”
For anyone who is sure they have a novel in them, who hopes to find the time, maybe after retirement, to write the thing down and, gosh, who knows, maybe get it published, Ms. Rich is like a poster child – a poster senior? – for the grand literary dream.
But she has a warning: “I’m kind of a cruel example, because I think the chances of this actually happening in this day and age with the publishing industry being the way it is, I think the odds are so long. And if I’m giving hope, really it’s kind of a false hope.”
Ms. Rich was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Calgary during the Vietnam war with her first husband, a historian who had a job offer from the University of Calgary. She later moved to Vancouver and worked for years as a family lawyer, selling her practice about 13 years ago. Retirement allowed her and her second husband to spend more time at their home in Colima, Mexico. And it also gave her time to write. She turned out a couple of mysteries. Her agent could not sell either.
In 2007, she and her husband took a walking tour of Venice that included the Jewish Ghetto. They visited the Jewish Museum, where she was drawn to a couple of silver spoons.
“There was something about the way these spoons were positioned in the glass case that made me think – don’t ask me why – of forceps.”
The seed for her midwife character was planted. Eager to learn more about the day-to-day life for Jewish women in the Venetian Ghetto, Ms. Rich tried to find historical fiction on the topic.
“I looked and looked and looked and there are no novels set in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Aha, this is a gap that must be filled.’”
Ms. Rich began researching the Jews of 16th century Venice, ordering all kinds of books at her local library branch, writing to professors of Jewish history around the world, returning to Italy for a few weeks to immerse herself in the place.
The character she created to hold those forceps – or birthing spoons – was Hannah Levy, a skilled, clever midwife operating in harsh ghetto circumstances.
The Midwife of Venice was published in February, 2011, raced up the bestseller lists, and stayed there for well over a year.
“It was mind boggling. To tell you the truth, I never thought it would be published. When I went to the book launch in Toronto when the book first came out … I was in Mexico and my husband put me on the plane in Guadalajara and I remember saying to him: ‘It is going to be so embarrassing. Nobody is going to buy this book. I am going to have to give my advance back.’ Because being a lawyer of course, I had read the fine print,” she laughs.
Three weeks later, she had a contract to produce two more books. Hannah’s story would become a trilogy.
In The Harem Midwife, Hannah is living in Constantinople with her loyal husband, Isaac, when trouble arrives on two fronts – a woman shows up claiming to be the widow of Isaac’s brother; and at the Royal Palace, the Sultan’s mother calls Hannah in to verify the virginity of an important acquisition for her son’s harem – who may finally produce a healthy male heir. Leah, a wild shepherdess, as Hannah learns, turns out to be Jewish like her.
(Despite the books’ deep immersion in Jewish life, Ms. Rich is not Jewish herself – a fact that astounds book club and festival audiences everywhere once someone in the audience gets up the nerve to ask her.)
Ms. Rich is working on the third book. This time, Hannah will be back in the Venice area, with the action set in a Palladian villa.
“And that will be the end of Hannah,” says Ms. Rich. “Hannah will live happily ever after.”