An Interview with Dara Horn
What attracted you to the idea of setting a book in the Civil War?
I think that
every historical novel is really much more about the time in which it is written than the time in
which it takes place, and that is very true for this book. The Civil War attracted me because of how
polarized America has become in the past decade, and because of how impossible it has become even to
have a conversation about current events without knowing in advance what the other person believes.
The divide between conservatives and liberals, or “red states” and “blue states,” really does go
back to the Civil War in so many ways; the “red states” and “blue states” tend to follow the
Mason-Dixon line and its legacies.
In 2002, after my first novel was published, I was invited
to speak in New Orleans, and while I was there, I came across an old Jewish cemetery. I was
surprised to see that the graves went back to the early 1800s. When I read more about it, I
discovered that New Orleans in the nineteenth century had the largest American Jewish population
after New York. I began reading about Jewish communities during the Civil War and discovered a
wealth of material, and what most intrigued me was how these communities responded to the war.
Generally they did so with a passionate patriotism, regardless of which side they lived on. But as a
national community, their response was a bit unusual. Many American religious denominations split at
the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are “Southern” Baptists or “Southern”
Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America by then, such as
B’nai Brith, none of them split during the Civil War. One could claim that this was due to the
Jewish community’s small size (about 130,000 Jews lived in America in 1860), but I think there was
also a more profound reason. Today it is common for Americans to have relatives around the country,
but in the nineteenth century this was comparably rare—except among American Jews, who, because they
were more often running businesses than running farms, were more likely to live mobile lives and to
have relatives and business contacts in other parts of the country. This made them somewhat more
likely than other Americans to appreciate the other side’s point of view.
It was this
tension between the need to prove one’s loyalty to one’s home and a sense of closeness to people on
the other side that I found fascinating. Civil War fiction is usually written from an uncompromising
point of view—most often sympathetic to the South. I wanted to write something that showed the
cruelty and the humanity of both sides, and in the Jewish community of the time I found a way to
Do you think of yourself as someone with strong political views?
I am a political
moderate, which makes me an endangered species. I am generally able to disagree with someone’s point
of view without also believing that they are the incarnation of evil. For this reason I’m
particularly fascinated by situations where two sides demonize each other—especially when there is a
certain legitimacy to each side. To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Civil War is
that most people who fought and died for the South didn’t own slaves. Instead they saw themselves as
defending their homes and defending an agrarian, traditionalist, independence-minded culture that
they rightly saw as threatened by the way industry and technology had already changed the North.
Most novels about the Civil War take a very particular approach to who the “good guys” and the “bad
guys” are, whether they are novels nostalgic for the old South or novels that explore the evils of
slavery. In my writing, I am more drawn to situations where the boundaries between good and evil
don’t run between people, but within them.
Your previous novels were quite openly engaged with the theological dimension of religion.
Does that have any role in this book?
It’s true that the supernatural is explicit in my
previous books in a way that isn’t apparent in this novel. But I do feel that there is a theological
dimension to the book in the ethical dilemmas the characters confront and in the ways the characters
change. The story of Jacob Rappaport, the Union spy who is the book’s main character, was inspired
by several actual spies from the period, but I also modeled him on the patriarch Jacob from the book
of Genesis. Many of the events in Jacob Rappaport’s life (his flight from his father’s house to his
uncle’s house, his involvement with a set of deceptive sisters, and his life-altering injury, to
name just a few) are taken from the biblical Jacob’s story, following that figure’s development from
a liar, pushover, and all-around moral degenerate into a fully formed moral human being worthy of
the title of father. The book’s title, All Other Nights, refers to the Passover liturgy,
when the youngest person present asks the question “How is this night different from all other
nights?” But the question behind that question is more difficult to answer: Are we—or do we have to
be—the same people from one night to the next? Do people ever really change? Or, to put it in
religious terms, is repentance possible?
Nineteenth-century Americans often referred to God
as “Providence,” suggesting not only a provider but also an arbiter of destiny. There are a number
of places in this book where characters see the events around them as directed by “Providence”—and
in more than one instance, they turn out to be demonstrably wrong about the impact of those events.
To me, the most powerful theological notion is the idea of human free will, the awesome
responsibility that people have for their own choices. The crimes and betrayals committed by the
characters in this novel are unforgivable, but these characters cannot continue their lives without
finding some way to atone for what they have done. The characters often have opportunities to
revisit these crimes, when they find themselves confronted once more with similar choices to make.
Then they have to decide whether they are capable of being different people tonight than they were
in the past.
What lies behind your decision to mix genuine historical figures and fictional characters in
your work, rather than writing “pure” history or “pure” fiction?
The kind of fiction I
tend to like best is usually the kind rooted in reality, allowing the reader to imagine his or her
way into a life lived by someone else. One particularly voyeuristic way to achieve this is to write
about someone who actually existed. In some ways, these real-life characters become a kind of
historical detail in the book, like riding crops and gas lamps, with the effect of making the
story’s setting more vivid and making the invented characters seem all the more real in the process.
But as an academic with a tremendous respect for the unanswerable questions in historical
research, I am also terribly cautious about the way I include real people in fiction. I’ve usually
avoided writing from the point of view of a historical figure, for instance, because I think it
would be very arrogant to pretend to know the thoughts of someone who really did once have his own
thoughts and consciousness. Instead I introduce these people through the fictional characters who
encounter them, and much of what comes through of these figures’ personalities is filtered through a
fictional character’s point of view—just as our view of these real people is colored by our own
perspectives when we try to learn about their lives from historical sources. The challenge of trying
to bring these people to life in fiction, in ways that would be impossible if I were writing
conventional history, is to serve the story while trying to be fair to the reality of their
While many of the characters in the book are inspired by real historical figures, only
three are “borrowed” from history with the known details of their real lives left intact: Judah
Benjamin (the Confederate secretary of state), Edwin Booth (a renowned New York actor who was the
brother of Lincoln’s assassin), and John Surratt (a Confederate courier who was arrested for his
alleged involvement in Lincoln’s murder, though he avoided conviction). There is some security in
depicting people long dead, but less than you’d expect. My previous novel, The World to
Come, also featured real-life figures: the painter Marc Chagall and the Yiddish writer Der
Nister, both safely dead. But that is when I discovered the phenomenon of the Angry Heir. (Chagall’s
granddaughter liked the book, though I did hear from others who were less thrilled.) I look forward
to hearing from more enraged descendants this time, especially those who have had more than a
century for their grievances to fester. I hope they’ll believe me that I meant no disrespect.
There is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the ability or inability to say no. What got you
thinking about that?
I was interested in exploring the ways in which freedom is a mental
rather than a physical state. One character in the book, Caleb Johnson, is a slave who secretly
works for the North as an agent for the Legal League, a network of African American spies that
maintained an ancillary underground railroad for both black and white agents employed by the
Northern government. (The Legal League really did exist, and I based Caleb’s character in part on
John Scobell, a renowned African American spy who posed as a slave, as well as on other African
American agents from the period.) When Caleb takes Jacob in at one point in the novel, it becomes
clear that Caleb has made his own choices about what to devote himself to, and as a result he is far
more of a free person than Jacob is. Throughout the book, Jacob makes choices without realizing that
all along he had the freedom to do otherwise.
People frequently give up their mental liberty
in exchange for any number of things—pride, status, ambition, love, or any other desire—or simply to
fulfill the expectations of others, often without being aware of what they have lost. Freedom isn’t
about having no obligations, but about the ability to choose one’s obligations.
You wrote your dedication to your children as “the cause.” Given that this novel has strong
political themes and for each side the cause is political, it raises the question: If our children
are the only cause, or a given cause is held as emotionally close as our children, can anything ever
be achieved, or resolved, in politics?
In the book, one of the characters claims that
“raising children is one of the only things one can do with one’s life” because, as he puts it, “You
can devote yourself to a cause, but what cause could be worth more than a child?” I do think that
devotion to a cause is something that only people without children usually have the luxury of
expressing. People who are parents have something else in their lives that will almost always matter
more to them. But people with children are also more likely to have something else that people
without children are somewhat less likely to have, which is empathy for other people’s children.
Large social changes tend to happen only when enough people see the problem at hand as something
that affects their own children—or when enough people are motivated to care about other people’s
What were the particular satisfactions (or frustrations) of writing this novel?
previous novels were written from many different perspectives, with scenes taking place at various
points in history and never in chronological order. For me this was always an easier way to write a
book—to follow whichever character’s point of view was most intriguing or use whatever historical
period seemed most relevant to the themes of the story that emerged. As I began writing this book,
though, I wondered if it would be possible for me to write a more traditionally structured novel: to
write from just one character’s point of view, with the events happening chronologically. That is,
with no tricks.
Many contemporary novels (aspects of my previous books included) tend to rely
on tricks—on jumping around in time or perspective, or telling stories in a manner far more
complicated than is necessary. This can be valuable, but only to a point. Ultimately the reader
needs a story and characters worth caring about for their own sake, and not merely for the styles or
techniques used to present them. It was very refreshing for me to write this book almost as a
nineteenth-century novel, complete with all the shameless action-adventure plot twists that
nineteenth-century readers would have expected—the book includes a shoot-out at a wedding, a
kidnapping plot, a prison break (or three), and so on. It was a lot of fun, but it also forced me to
focus on what matters most in writing a novel: making the plot and the characters compelling.
There are several different kinds of codes and puzzles in the book—is that a particular
fascination for you?
The great thing about Civil War ciphers and codes, for the general
reader, is that they are on a human scale. After the 1930s, military codes became machine-generated,
but ciphers prior to that were really just created by clever people, and were breakable by clever
people too. That makes them a lot more fun for readers who don’t have a supercomputer in their
The codes used by the North and the South are especially fun in this way. The
Northern ciphers changed continuously but were always based on a word-reordering system, where the
words of a message were restructured according to particular patterns and then certain crucial words
were replaced with substitutes. This makes the coded messages seem easy to translate, but they are
actually quite difficult to crack. The main Southern cipher was based on a two-layered alphabet
substitution system—which makes the coded messages look completely indecipherable, but which is
actually quite easy to break once you know how the letters are being substituted. (There are more
detailed explanations of both ciphers given in this guide.)
Some of the codes in the book are
simply there for nonhistorical fun. Rose, the youngest of the spy sisters, speaks in palindromes and
anagrams, a talent she uses when ciphering real messages. These codes and puzzles interest me
because people almost always speak in some sort of code. In the novel and in real life, an enormous
percentage of daily conversation consists of both outward and hidden meanings, and the way something
is said is almost always more important that the words themselves.
Your first two books ranged around the world, from suburban New Jersey to Holland to the
Soviet Union to Vietnam. This one is set purely in the United States. Do you have an itch to travel
again? If so, where might you take us in your next novel?
I’ve been fortunate to travel
a lot in my life; I’ve been to about fifty countries around the world, and that is something that
has deeply influenced my novels. Now that I have three children aged three and under, I spend a lot
more time closer to home. But I feel lucky to be able to draw from my experiences in other countries
and cultures, even while writing a book set in my native country—because while this book takes place
in America, it is a very different America from the one that anyone alive today has ever lived in. I
don’t know where my next book might go—at the moment I’ve only written the first fifty pages, which
I’m sure to throw away—but it will likely involve another country, even if it’s only this country in
A Note on Codes and Ciphers
The Union Cipher System
The cipher used by the Union during the Civil War worked through a system of routing columns. The
code went through several evolutions between 1861 and 1865. In the cipher’s most developed state,
the first word of a ciphered message was a key word, indicating the number of columns and lines into
which the subsequent words needed to be arranged as well as the route for reading them correctly.
Meaningless words were used to complete columns or rows. Substitute words were used for terms such
as state, city, and river names, names of officers or leaders on either side, hours of the day,
military expressions, and later for common phrases. The key words and substitute words were
initially few enough in number to fit on a small card or to be committed to memory. As the war
progressed and the cipher became more complicated, twelve pages’ worth of key words were used, along
with more than sixteen hundred substitute words. The cipher was contained in a booklet whose
listings were themselves rather convoluted and obscure, and the absence of instructions in the
booklet made it useless to any enemy who might find it. The example here uses Cipher Number 9, the
version used starting in January 1863.
The first word in the ciphered message, “WISE,”
indicates that the words have been arranged in six columns of nine lines each, and that the route
for reading them correctly is up the third column, down the second, up the fourth, down the fifth,
up the first, and then down the sixth. Here are the words rearranged according to this route, with
substitute words decoded. (The last two words, “Dara” and “Horn,” are of course meaningless.)
While the use of normal words makes this code seem easier to crack than the alphabetically based
Confederate code, it was in fact far more difficult to decipher and far more efficient than the
Southern one. Although the cipher’s coding booklet fell into enemy hands on several occasions, and
although many message were intercepted, the Confederates never managed to decipher any version of
this code. In fact, Southern desperation to decode this cipher was so intense that intercepted
Northern messages were published in Southern newspapers, with an appeal to the public to try to
crack the code. No one ever did.
The Confederate Cipher System
While several local ciphers were used on a small scale in the South, the primary cipher used by
the Confederacy during the Civil War was the Vigenère Tableau, also called the Vicksburg Square. It
was a polyalphabetic substitution system, with a key phrase providing an additional layer of
encryption. Messages were ciphered and deciphered using the “square,” a table that arranged the
English alphabet horizontally and vertically along the top and left-hand side, with alphabets listed
after each letter like this:
Much to the South’s
detriment, only three key phrases were used with this square throughout the war: “complete victory,”
“Manchester Bluff,” and “come retribution.” (The last of these was in fact not used until the final
months of the war, though it appears earlier in the novel.) Messages were ciphered by lining up the
letters of each word with the letters of the key phrase. One then finds the junction between the
message’s letter and the key phrase’s letter on the Square, and records the letter at their
junction, as follows:
Deciphering the message entailed finding the letter of the key phrase on the top of the square,
tracing down the column to reach the cipher letter, and then tracing along the row to the left-most
column to find the message letter. Some agents eased this process by separating words with commas or
other punctuation—a choice that ultimately made the code much easier to crack when such messages
fell into enemy hands.
Despite the South’s distinct advantage in many matters of espionage
during the Civil War, this cipher system proved to be inefficient and often ineffective, since the
slightest error (which anyone trying it will find difficult to avoid) can render a message
illegible. One Confederate major, after trying for twelve hours to decipher a message containing an
error, actually rode his horse around the Union formations on the battlefield to reach the general
who had sent the message and ask him in person what he was trying to say. Meanwhile, the Union had
assembled a team of three very young and very talented young men—known in Washington as the “Sacred
Three” for the value of their service—who managed through pure brainpower to crack the South’s three
key phrases and thereby decipher Southern messages.
Sources: William R. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United
States (1882); David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing (1967).
- The title of this novel, All Other Nights, is in
the author’s view also a question: Are we the same people from one night to the next? If not, how
are we accountable for our actions in the past? If so, how is it possible to change?
- Jacob is twice presented with opportunities to potentially save President Lincoln’s life,
each involving great personal cost. Does he do the right thing?
- How do the themes of escape and freedom from bondage (as celebrated in the Passover feast)
play out in the book?
- What is the role of deception in the novel? What are the different motivations for deception,
and can any of them be good? What are the consequences, both for the deceiver and for the
- Palindromes have a playful role in the book among the spy sisters’ secret codes, but do they
also play a serious one? Many events in the book are repeated (an encounter in a cemetery, a
prisoner’s unexpected release, a choice regarding a spouse), but with different outcomes. Is there a
way in which the book itself can be read as a palindrome? What might this pattern suggest about the
characters’ control over their circumstances?
- Theater and performance come up many times in the novel, including Jeannie’s stage acts,
Edwin Booth’s portrayal of Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Jacob’s role as a secret agent.
There is also an element of performance in Judah Benjamin’s detachment and courier John Surratt’s
swagger, among many other characters’ traits. Are there any characters in the book whose motivations
are completely pure? What is the price of honesty for the people in this novel? Is it possible to be
true to oneself when one is forced to choose a side?
- Slavery plays an important thematic role in the novel, explicitly in the circumstances of
African Americans at the time of the Civil War as well as in other forms of interpersonal
exploitation. How are people bought and sold in the book, and what form does freedom take?
- Relationships between parents and children are pivotal to the story in All Other
Nights, particularly for the fathers of Jacob and Jeannie. What do these two fathers—one an
immigrant and the other the son of one—reveal about their priorities and dreams for their children?
- What is ultimately more important in this novel: family values or a search for self?
- The author has suggested that historical fiction tends to address the time in which it is
written much more than it addresses the past. Do you see parallels between the conflicts presented
in this book and conflicts in American life today? How would you describe them? Which side are you
on, and can you say anything good about the other side?
- What makes someone an American in this novel? Is it birth? Ancestry? Ownership of property?
Personal freedoms? The respect of others? What is patriotism for these characters?
- Where do Jacob’s loyalties lie, and is it possible to rank them in order? Where are your own
deepest loyalties? Is there a difference between your loyalties as an individual and your loyalties
as a member of an ethnic, religious, regional, national, or other kind of group? What do you do when
- What do you think most deserves our personal loyalty? Our collective loyalty?
- What does it mean to be able to say no?