An interview with Jenny White
What drew you to the topic of the socialist movement in the late-nineteenth century? How did you research the topic?
This was one of the most important movements of the late-nineteenth century, a time of glorious experimentation with new ideas of justice, equality, and communal living. Idealistic young people set out to build utopian communities. There was even a socialist commune in California in 1886, the Kaweah Colony. I liked the idea of exploring the effect of such ideas on people as they try to live out ideals that might seem extreme to others.
Yorg Pasha says of the commune that “he was too old to join such an endeavor now, but he thought there should still be a place in the empire for dreaming.” How do the politics and idealism described in the novel resonate today?
Starting a revolution to better people’s lives is generally a young person’s dream, in part because of the risks and hard labor and, not infrequently, violence that such attempts to transform society entail. People living their lives in their accustomed way, even if flawed, aren’t always open to change. When things change, something might be gained, but someone always loses. There are costs to bucking the system, wherever it is, and Yorg Pasha talks wistfully about the compromises he’s had to make.
Values and ideals, as much as a hard-nosed desire for power, are behind many political events, today as in Kamil’s time. We tend to think we recognize good motives from bad. But during times of war and great social and political upheaval, people are placed in unthinkable situations where what’s right and wrong isn’t so clear anymore. What kinds of choices do you end up making? If you had to defend your family, what would you do? How far would you go, and how would you live with that? Would you put your family and friends at risk for a noble cause? The idealism of the revolutionary and the heroism of the soldier might look like cruelty or even terrorism to the victim.
Although they live in a society where their movements and activities are restricted, your women characters are strong and complicated, and they often push the boundaries of feminine respectability—for example, Elif cross-dresses, and Vera leads an effort to teach women how to use firearms. What are your goals for your women characters? What is the source of their strength?
The death of her father (in The Sultan’s Seal) had made Feride very fragile, so much so that Kamil had begun to worry that his sister was withdrawing from life. Yet the prospect of further loss appears to have had a bracing effect, as if she had decided that enough is enough. The need to act, to do something to save her husband and marriage and, in the process, perhaps to save others, pulls Feride out of herself. Elif, after her horrible experiences escaping from Macedonia, finds a self-reliance she might not have experienced—or needed—before. In Elif’s case, she has been so brutalized that she has built high walls around herself to try to keep herself safe and to keep others out. In trying to save her Greek friend, Vera sets out on a path that alters her entire life. I have no particular goals for women in the book. They each go their own way. In my earlier books, some of the women—Kamil’s mother and half-sister, for instance—have made compromises and some have pushed unabashedly for power. They have different personalities and capacities that allow them to bear—and to manipulate—the rules and norms of their society.
Sultan Abdulhamid is a somewhat notorious historical personage, and yet he appears quite reasonable and circumspect in this novel. How did you go about creating his character?
Sultan Abdulhamid II was in power for a very long time, from 1876 to 1909, when he was deposed. In his later years, he gained a reputation for being paranoid that someone was out to kill him and that people were plotting against him, but it’s important to remember that people were in fact doing so. He was the last Ottoman sultan with any power, and he presided over the death of the empire. Sultan Abdulhamid was worried about the empire being torn apart by the wars that were being fought on many fronts and by factions within his own government.
Recent historians have looked beyond the caricature of the cruel, autocratic paranoid sultan and described his life more realistically. He was an expert at crafting furniture (all princes were required to learn a trade) and was very interested in photography and modern technology. He did a lot to modernize the empire, although he kept a tight grip on politics. He loved mystery novels and had Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries translated as soon as they were published and read to him at night by a servant behind a screen. His personality and his views naturally changed over the thirty years he was in power. He became more suspicious of people and afraid of being deposed. Well, he had cause to worry. But I assumed that he cared as much about the survival of the empire that had lasted for six centuries under his family’s rule as about his own skin.
Kamil changes a great deal over the course of the novel, particularly in his ideas of right and wrong and his faith in the fairness of Ottoman rule. Will his changed sense of morality lead him in a new direction? What’s next for Kamil Pasha?
Kamil is a western-trained modern man who has an interest in science and botany (especially orchids) and is suspicious of religion and superstition. Yet he also has a great appreciation for the strong values, colorful customs, and cosmopolitan life of Ottoman urban society. He believes that the Ottoman system is fundamentally just and that it is his duty to protect the system and the empire. All of this is sorely tested in The Winter Thief, where Kamil finds himself, perhaps not unhappily, on the far side of the law and in violation of his own moral standards. The experience, however, is emotionally wrenching and irrevocably shatters some of his most treasured beliefs. I don’t want to give anything away, so I leave it to the reader to discern what Kamil has learned and what he has had to abandon.
In some ways, Kamil is an exemplar of the type of young bureaucrats—the Young Turks—that later overthrew the sultan and founded the Turkish republic, but he is of the kind that wanted to save the richly cosmopolitan empire, not found a republic of just Muslim Turks. He wants the empire to modernize, but he worries about what will happen to the fabric of society if religious ethics and family values are displaced by science and cold rational motives. In many ways, these are familiar questions and dilemmas that a number of societies are still worrying about, including the United States.
There are hints at the end of The Winter Thief about what might yet come to be. In the next book, Kamil might be given a position of great responsibility, prestige, and even greater risk that might take him away from home just at a time when he most wants to stay put. He is bone tired and there is marriage in the air. But can he stand against the sultan’s wish that he take up this new task? Undoubtedly something of great importance will force Kamil’s hand, and then we’re off on another adventure.
Questions for discussion
1. Why is Vera’s marriage with Gabriel troubled at the beginning of the novel? What blind spots does each of them have when it comes to their relationship?
2. What attracts Vera to socialism? Do you think that she regrets her decision to give up the comforts of her old life?
3. A number of the male characters in this novel—particularly Kamil and Vahid—have had complicated or distant relationships with their fathers. How did Kamil’s and Vahid’s relationships with their fathers shape their personalities and their psychology? Do you think that the strained father-son relationships reflect a larger social problem?
4. If you were in Feride’s place, would you have reacted the way she did when she found out that Huseyin was at the taverna with Rhea? In what ways do Ottoman social customs seem to affect Feride and Huseyin’s marriage?
5. Were you surprised by Elif’s decision to cross-dress in public? Why do you think she pretends to be a man?
6. Is Gabriel selfish to insist that the commune continue even when it is clear that the members are in great danger?
7. How is Vera’s relationship with Apollo different from her relationship with Gabriel? Compare and contrast the two men.
8. Why does Vahid self-mutilate, and in what ways do you think this practice may be linked to his sadistic attitude toward women?
9. What do you think of Kamil and Elif’s relationship? What difficulties might they face in the future?
10. What is the psychological impact of the events of the novel on Kamil? How do you think his attitude toward his work and life will be different in the future?
About Jenny White
Jenny White is the author of the Kamil Pasha series: The Sultan’s Sea (a finalist for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award), The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief. She is a professor of anthropology at Boston University, specializing in Turkey.
Books by Jenny White
"An immensely enjoyable read, richly textured and wonderfully atmospheric."—Sarah GravesMore
"A wonderful read…. An historical novel of the highest quality."—Iain PearsMore
"A deftly plotted and clever tale of intrigue, duplicity, and violence."—Booklist, starred reviewMore