When Rick Salutin's son Gideon asked one day about the origin of his own name, neither could have predicted the question would spark years of important religious conversation. As the younger Salutin progressed through high school, these in-depth examinations of their Jewish faith became a way for father and son to explore the Bible and its teachings, as well as its various modern and historical interpretations.
Their new book, Gideon's Bible (ECW), is the product of these theological jam sessions. A collection of their discussions presented in the tradition of Jewish biblical commentary (in which biblical passages are printed alongside examination of the text and its meaning), the book features dynamic, eye-catching illustrations by Dušan Petriĉic as well as a foreword by family friend Margaret Atwood.
Thought-provoking and insightful with a dash of lighthearted humour, Gideon's Bible is a unique work of love, faith, and family.
We're very excited to have Rick and Gideon at Open Book today, where they discuss a summer of illuminating conversation at their Muskoka cottage, one particularly troubling story that proved to be an opportunity for debate, and how nonfiction can benefit from a writer's unique voice.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
Two questions, really. One led to the other. When he was little, Gideon asked why I gave him his name. I said his mother and I decided we’d each get to choose one name. His mother seemed relaxed about it, but I found it the hardest thing I’ve ever done: to give someone you haven’t met something they’ll carry all their life. Eventually I settled on Gideon, a character I like very much in the Bible for three reasons: he’s a skeptic, a fighter, and a democrat. Plus, a dear friend and colleague, actor Douglas Campbell, had created the character Gideon in a Broadway play during the 1960s. I told Gideon it was from the Bible. He said, “What’s the Bible?” and I thought, we’ve got a book. But in all honesty, I’m not sure we ever had that conversation or if it’s just something that ought to have happened, so we’re convinced that it did.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
My dad was pretty well read on this stuff, so he wasn't too stressed. I, on the other hand, felt totally out of my depth. That juxtaposition makes for an enticing dynamic on the page, but when you're on the ignorant side of the relationship it can be pretty scary. My research started once we felt confident in the book's eventual release. We went up to our cottage in Muskoka and spent all summer discussing the Bible. I would read translations of the stories we wanted to write about during the day – mostly the Torah and historical stuff – and we'd discuss them in the evening. It became our routine, and our daily life would inevitably seep into discussions. Those connections between our lives and our research became one of the real joys of working on this piece, and we tried to transcribe those moments into the book. Then, after that summer, we spent a few years reviewing our conversations, reformatting them into readable pages that corresponded to biblical moments. The time this process took, and the changes that took place in both our thinking, became the closest thing this book has to a theme.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I spend most of my writing time not writing. I don’t see the point of sitting there if you don’t know what you’re going to say. I’m in awe of people who can. Most of my writing time is spent pondering. Eventually something comes to me and I sit down briefly to get it out of my head and onto the page. I’m a great believer in procrastination and thinking about everything else. If I’m getting nowhere, I’ll head out onto the street and often enough the moment my foot hits the pavement I know the answer or, even better, the question. As long as I’ve managed to not think about it, it comes.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
The only thing that really discouraged me was the publishing process. Obstacles would emerge that threatened to upend the entire project. Writing in Canada can be particularly hard, and to be honest it feels like a miracle we got it out at all. All you can do is muddle through and meet each obstacle as you met the first. You keep writing, you keep fighting, and you hope it works out. It's all a leap of faith, but the end result can be beautiful.
The toughest moment for me in the writing process was The Rape of Dinah. Dinah, Jacob's daughter, is raped, and his sons find the rapist's village and slaughter all its inhabitants. The story's horrifying and complex. There's a reason most scholars don't talk about it. My dad and I had real disagreements over this page, probably owing to divergent generational understandings of feminism and sexuality. Compared to other chapters, it took the longest to write, but it's now one of the pages I love the most because it includes those disagreements that took place in the writing process. Our obstacle became a real opportunity, and we tried to harness it.
What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I have no idea. Margaret Atwood, my wonderful old friend and Gideon’s godmother, said someone once told her that a book is either alive or dead. That’s good enough for me, and it applies to fiction, non-fiction, and whatever we’ve done in this odd work. A book I love is Fanshen, by William Hinton. He was a farmer who lived in China from the 1930s to the early 1950s. He stayed in a peasant village throughout the Chinese revolution and chronicled the lives of its very ordinary, illiterate people as history occurred among them. You really get to know them. My first play was an adaptation of it. What I liked most was the collective, social sense, which is also why I was drawn to doing theatre. The joy of this book was that it was such a collaboration over time (from Gideon’s early years until now) and space (with Gideon in Toronto, Dusan - our maginificent illustrator - in Serbia, and me in Toronto).
I think it's inevitable that your past experience and everyday life as a writer will spill into your non-fiction work. If you work in fiction, you're meant to embrace that tendency, but if you're writing non-fiction there's a fear it will somehow corrupt your conclusions. It's like your book is a chemistry experiment that will go wrong if an unexpected ingredient is added. The non-fiction books which really speak to me are ones that don't just accept but embrace that corruption with enthusiasm. Your work will always be influenced by your personal life, so why not try to use that to inform your conclusions?
Martin Buber was the master of this. He wasn't just a philosopher of Judaism, but a philosopher of life itself. In I and Thou, he spends pages describing and analyzing his relationship with his cat. There's no apology surrounding it, no "but I digress”. He honestly believes this section is important. And it is! It's a great explainer for one of his more complex ideas. Later, while he was deep in thought, a student came to him asking for advice. Buber was busy, and he brushed off the students' concerns so he could get back to his work. Later, the student killed himself, and Buber promised to never again be so invested in his philosophy that he might neglect real lives. In some ways this demonstrated a new commitment, but it also maintained his method of thinking, one that believed real life should inform non-fiction work. Robert Caro uses the same tactic. In his soon-to-be five-part biography of Lyndon Johnson, he sets himself above other biographers by feeling absolutely free to make unverifiable claims regarding Johnson's character. You'll have read pages of political history, and then a phrase will jump out like "Lyndon Johnson was never a reader of books, but he was a reader of men." Wow. He bases these ideas on interviews and rigorous academic study, but they're his own analyses. I think embracing your own identity as a writer is essential if you want to say anything worthwhile. But maybe that's just the millennial in me.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently just trying to get through school. COVID emerged just when I expected to graduate, and it's left me even more confused about my future plans than I had been before. I have some interest in journalism, probably inherited, but like a lot of people my age, most of my writing energy is spent on cover letters and job applications. In the meantime, I'm trying to improve my skills as a photographer and computer programmer. Depending on how long workplaces stay closed, though, I may have time to work on more long-form pieces.
Rick Salutin is a playwright, novelist, and journalist who has received awards in all these areas. He wrote a weekly column for The Globe and Mail for 20 years and now provides weekly columns and videos for the Toronto Star.
Gideon Salutin grew up in downtown Toronto without a religious upbringing or bar mitzvah. Instead, he learned the Bible’s major stories through talks with his dad. In 2019, he founded the Contemporary Review of Genocides and interned with the United Nations. He attends McGill and carries a camera everywhere.