Iscariot is the forthcoming novel from Tosca Lee, releasing a week from today (February 5th). The novel’s been much anticipated, not just for Ms. Lee’s brilliant craft, but for the provocative and controversial subject matter — a fictional adaption of one of the most infamous figures in history. Tosca graciously entertained some questions about the novel. And as an added bonus, she’ll be sending an autographed hardcover copy of Iscariot to one commenter. (Just leave a comment on this post and a winner will be randomly selected Friday AM.)
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MIKE: I noticed you’ll be on the road doing some book signings for Iscariot. Any chance you’ll make it to SoCal?
TOSCA: Unfortunately, not this time (and believe me, I am dying for some California weather), but hopefully on the Sovereign tour this spring!
MIKE: Fiction is often said to be a biographical reflection of its author. If this is true, what does it say about you that you chose to write about one the most infamous figures in church history? Is there something about Iscariot that is “biographical” of Tosca Lee?
TOSCA: In many ways, yes. Iscariot is very much a story about the law vs. love, about our own agenda for God. Many times in my life I’ve lost sight of grace and love in the name of legalism, and many time been flummoxed by the fact that God did not behave in the way I thought God should. At some point in the writing of Judas’ story, I realized I was writing my own. And that scared the crap out of me.
MIKE: I’m interested in the path of this book to publication. My guess is that Christian publishers were not falling all over themselves to contract the book (even though the name Tosca Lee is surely a big draw). Am I wrong? Did you have a hard time pitching this idea to Christian publishers?
TOSCA: Weirdly, no. When I was first toying with the idea, I really thought my agent and others would talk me out of it (when I realized how much work it would take, I was kind of hoping they would!), but it garnered a lot of interest from the get-go. I think this is just one of those characters that people are curious about. I know I was.
MIKE: You’re known for the extensive research you put into your novels. Without giving away the story and its approach, what were some of the most surprising elements of the history, culture, and narrative about Judas Iscariot that your research uncovered?
TOSCA: First, the sheer political and religious tension of the historical context. The groan for national salvation from Rome… the swift and violent suppression of failed would-be messiahs and those who supported them. As pertains to Judas, the question of his background and education–was he a man of the Law or even a Pharisee? The question of the Greek word “paradidomi,” most often translated as “betray” but as aptly translated as “deliver” (even as one “delivers” the good news.).
But the biggest surprise was Jesus. This wasn’t the mild-mannered Jesus of pictures—this was a hand-laborer of questionable birth from a backwater town. A man who spoke out against the rich, the Pharisees (good religious laymen of the time), touching the socially untouchable, interacting with women, drawing a dangerous crowd wherever he went, saying things like “drink my blood”… doing the things that by all accounts a good man of Israel—a safe man—would not do.
MIKE: Authors are told to make their protagonists likeable. Can Judas rightly be called the protagonist of this novel? And, if so, are you trying to make him “likeable”?
TOSCA: I wanted to make Judas human. To explore the question “Would I have done the same?” So he became an unlikely protagonist, but more than that, he really became a first-Century lens on the events of Jesus’ ministry. A way to slip into the skin of the only disciple that Jesus called “friend” and sit down at the side of this man I call Messiah. Ultimately, this story is really about Jesus.
MIKE: In the trailer for Iscariot, you ask. “Is it possible that 2,000 years of tradition have gotten it wrong?” After writing this novel, what is your conclusion? And what are some of the factors, beliefs, or history, that may have contributed to us “getting it wrong”?
TOSCA: There are two major questions pertaining to Judas that we rarely examine in depth: the act most commonly translated as betrayal, and the post-Augustine stigma of his suicide. How you feel about these two questions–and the eternal destination of Judas–depends on your doctrine. But most of us just accept that Judas was evil and move on. Was he evil–more evil than the rest of us? The Bible says Satan entered him… was this the devil, or the spirit of the Accuser–a role he played before the Sanhedrin? I’m not claiming to know the answers, but I do think it’s hubris on our part to say, “I never would have done that.” Really? It’s easy as free, modern Americans to look back through the lens of church history and state, to us, the obvious. To strip away the humanity of a man we only remember as a villain without pausing to see ourselves in him.
MIKE: One consistent complaint about biblical fiction is the potential liberty it takes with Scripture, adding to or subtracting from historical / biblical gray areas. Both Havah and Iscariot (and Demon: A Memoir, to a certain extent), all involve historical biblical figures. What do you consider the parameters of embellishment? How do you know when you’ve gone too far in theorizing about a biblical character?
TOSCA: For me, it needs to fit both scripturally and historically. Beyond that, it must be plausible. Characters must have real motivation that, given the political, social and religious setting of the time, actually makes sense. Times change. Human nature, by and large, does not.
MIKE: Most people know how the historical story of Judas Iscariot ends. How did you manage to navigate toward what could be called, its “predictable” ending, without making it predictable? What makes Iscariot compelling despite its universally known conclusion?
TOSCA: This is the same challenge that I faced with the story of Adam and Eve in Havah. We all know what happens in the end. But the interesting part to me is how they get there. In Iscariot, I got the inevitable out of the way first thing: Judas is hanging on the tree at the beginning. There. We know the ending. Now we can begin the journey toward the real question: Why did he do it? What was he thinking? And, in his shoes… would I have done the same?
MIKE: Christ chose Judas as one of His disciples. What do you think that says about Jesus? And does Jesus still “choose” Judases to follow Him?
TOSCA: I think it suggests a few things: that Jesus knew what would happen. That he chose him anyway, just as he chooses us. At least, I hope Jesus still chooses Judases, or else I’m not sure there’s hope for me.
Thanks, Tosca! The book sounds fascinating. Wishing you much success. (And also, shout-out to Simon & Schuster for contracting the novel.)
And remember, if you’d like to be entered into the drawing for the signed copy of Iscariot, just leave a comment on this post. You can purchase your own copy of Iscariot HERE.