My first book, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, is a history of people who’ve looked for the Bible’s Garden of Eden on Earth. They all start with the same four verses of Genesis and all end up at a different place. Each chapter of my book follows a different theory. I organized the book chronologically, so I could let history and context help move the story along. The variety of interpretations was part of the larger story I wanted to tell.
But just how large was the story? One of my Eden-seekers, a Chinese Christian exiled in Hong Kong during World War I, tried to overthrow China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing. (His Garden of Eden was in outer Mongolia.) How much did I need to know about Chinese dynasties? Another, the first president of Boston University, believed adamantly that the Garden of Eden was at the North Pole. What did I need to know about 19th century polar exploration? My mentor, biographer Patricia O’Toole, always soothing, shared with me her “rule of three.” For an event you know nothing about, read three major works about it, ideally from different perspectives, and then move on. With 14 chapters each with numerous background events, I had enough reading for three years.
Even so, in talking about the book, I come up against holes in my knowledge. I quoted the prolific St. writing that Genesis should be taken literally; apparently he later wrote that Genesis is an allegory. Fair enough. My expertise isn’t in Augustine, it’s in the search for the Garden of Eden—obscure though that may be. I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I can’t read everything.
How do you decide what is “foreground” and what is “background” in your story? Do you think of yourself as an expert?
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in August. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Salon, Lapham’s Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe. A graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction writing MFA program, she lives in New Jersey.