Authorial Air 

Mark Helprin on writing, critics, history

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Most people wouldn't know where to begin in writing a novel--the activity and the outcome seem like a peculiar mix of alchemy and magic. It's disappointing then, when hearing an author interviewed on Fresh Air or Charlie Rose--or the Today Show--far from the expected magician, the writer is revealed to be a naval-gazing solipsist with nothing interesting to say. (Given the "write what you know" dictum, maybe that's why so many novels of late are so boring.)

Happily, this is not the case with Mark Helprin--author of books like Winter's Tale, Memoir From Antproof Case and A Soldier of the Great War--a novelist of rare talent, whose interesting life, it turns out, could have come from one of his own books.

Helprin is nearly 60 years old and has been publishing his work for nearly 40 years. While he was born and raised in Manhattan, Helprin's youth was spent in the freewheeling fashion of a boy's adventure story; he was a merchant marine, attended Oxford and served with the Israeli armed forces. His first publication was at an age when most writers are just beginning at their craft.

Helprin's novels are woven from impossible, outrageous, coarse yet magical threads--complex but eminently readable. He is also a conservative pundit who regularly publishes decidedly not whimsical pieces on current events, many focused on the Middle East, in The Wall Street Journal and for the Claremont Institute.

BW recently caught up with Helprin via telephone to discuss his latest novel, Freddy and Fredericka (published in paperback by Penguin just this summer), his writing and his experiences. By the end of the chat, there was an interviewee who had more to say than he had time to devote to it (made aware of the hour by a family waiting patiently to leave for dinner), and a interviewer who still had a million questions and would have been happy to stay on the line for as long as Helprin might have kept talking.

The following gives BW's readers a glimpse into the mind of one of today's most skilled novelists (and is a much fuller version than the one that ran in the October 25 print issue of the paper).

Boise Weekly: Have you ever been to Boise?

Mark Helprin: Yes, I have, I think on two occasions, or maybe even three. When I was 14, I bicycled across the United States and that was so long ago, I don't remember exactly where we were, but I know we were in Idaho. I think we were in southern Idaho. But subsequently when we lived in Seattle we would drive to various places in the West and also back East and we passed through Boise at least twice.

Well it's change a lot, you probably wouldn't recognize it.

I've heard that there has been tremendous development there.

It's been quite the topic of conversation all around.

It always is--I suppose it was in Manhattan in the 18th century.

We just took a little while to catch up over here in the Wild West.

Let me begin with a question about your most recent novel, Freddy and Fredericka. I don't think it's too much to say that these title characters, modern day English royalty, are kind of ridiculous people--they act ridiculous; they think in ridiculous ways; they even look ridiculous. Then, through the course of the book, they undergo this transformation that's not just spiritual, but even physical. How do you straddle that line from a book that seems to want to be farce as it begins, then deepens into something that's more than just making fun of these two characters?

OK, that's an excellent question. It's a bit of an involved answer. Until 1850, all literature, or most of it anyway, conformed to a certain pattern, which we call the romance. It has nothing to do, obviously, with bodice rippers, and nothing to do with 19th century Romanticism--it predates it, it goes back to the dawn of human history and there is a pattern in the way that human beings told their stories. I mean there are several patterns, but there is one sort of universal pattern with variations and we call that the romance.

In about the middle of the 19th century, that was superseded by realism. Realism has only been around for about 150 years, whereas the other form has been around for about 10,000. The reason that it has been around for 10,000 years and the reason that people still understand it--and when they see it, just automatically don't need to have it explained--and respond to it very strongly, is because it reflects the way human beings live their lives. Now, the romance particularly has certain elements in common. And let's start with the Bible, with the story of the fall. First thing is, it starts off in paradise. Here you have Adam and Eve in paradise, you have the angels in heaven in Paradise Lost, you have Tom Jones [from The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding] at Squire Allworthy's, which is a paradise with Sophia. In practically every story, book and novel, you begin in a kind of paradise, because we begin in the paradise of childhood and youth: Dante with Beatrice, Aeneas and Odysseus.

The protagonist from Adam through the angels through Tom Jones into modern times, in this case, Freddy and Fredericka, is thrown out of paradise. In the case of the Bible, Eve entrances Adam with the apple, and in the case of Freddy and Fredericka, it's Fredericka, because she makes trouble in her particular way, and they are thrown, expelled from paradise. Tom Jones is expelled from paradise; they're all expelled from paradise. And then what happens is they go on a quest, or a rite of passage. And in the rite of passage they encounter a number of standard elements. For example, doppelgangers, people who are more or less the same as they are. In Amadis de Gaula, in various Medieval romances, they encounter people who are doubles. And Freddy does in Freddy and Fredericka in [the character of] Finny, and also in meeting various kings, you know, fake kings, theatrical kings, he meets doppelgangers. They meet the character of the Wise Hermit. In Star Wars, the Wise Hermit is Yoda, the instructor. In Freddy and Fredericka, it was the woman in the fire tower who was fulfilling the role of the Wise Hermit, to teach the person who is on the rite of passage.

In most of these stories they are looking for something, the silver chalice--which by the way in an anagram for Freddy and Fredericka's live ash circle--the holy grail, a long-lost relative, a parent, a child. They're searching for something, which is very important to them and possibly even to their societies. And they usually find it. There are usually all kinds of mistakes of identity and confusions and everything--the Roman comedies are like this. And they go through all that with lots of adventures and tests, you know, slaying dragons and going over the sea, etc. In all these things it is important that blood will tell--that you are born with a certain character and it then becomes refined and tested and it shows when you have passed the test. And particularly with kings and leaders, they are born children, after all, but they have to learn and their character comes out.

And then they return to their former paradise, as Freddy and Fredericka return, but they are changed, because now they are grown, they have learned, they have been saddened by knowing what reality is. Adam and Eve, they lose their innocence and they grow up, also often with the death of a parent, or Squire Allworthy, or whatever, in this case, Philippa. And then they become adults themselves and they father or mother children and those children--as with Freddy and Fredericka--those children then start the cycle all over again and embark on upon their own expulsion from paradise, rites of passage, coming back, father children, etc. [The story form] is a cycle, because this is what human life is.

To answer your question directly, the heart of this process and the heart of the story of all these romances and this book too, is the development of the characters after they are expelled from romance and they go on their quest to prove themselves and to learn to be real people and to grow up, you know, in a way that is a bildungsroman--a novel of education, a rite of passage. The reason [Freddy and Fredericka] can go from that to what they become and to develop actually is that like a bildungsroman, they develop and they learn and this is a universal thing. It's what happens to all of us, assuming that we are not just fools who waste our time on Earth. And that's how they made that transformation. They were put to the test and they passed the test. And they learned.

When I finished reading the book, I wondered--not that you've necessarily made it a practice of writing sequels--if there was a sequel coming. But now I'm thinking that it's done.

I don't write sequels, except I did once, as children's books [Swan Lake, A City in Winter and The Veil of Snows]. And it wasn't a sequel really, it was a trilogy, because [the story] had to be divided up into three to make them short. It really was intended as a trilogy, but they were published separately as separate books. We should have done it as a whole and who knows, maybe it would have been like Harry Potter and I could be able to buy a new refrigerator.

You would consider revisiting the genre? 

It would be for when the grandchildren come. Or, maybe even in preparation for that. I don't know. But for a while I'm kind of written out for children's books. 

Well they were quite epic, not necessarily in their length, but in their depth. I can see how that might be exhausting. Your children were the inspiration for the trilogy?

Yes. In fact, I had never even thought to write a children's book, and then when my first child was born, a children's publisher proposed to me that I write Swan Lake. And I normally wouldn't have done it, because I'd never written a children's book, I didn't think of myself as writing children's books--although why not--but it is a specialized field and if you move out of what you know, you can sometimes get hit. But because I had a little baby girl at that point, I said, well I think I'll do this. And I did it. And then the second child was born and so I had reason to write another book. And then I had it worked into three.

Your books are reminiscent of adventure novels from an earlier age. There is a sense that you're not limited by what's possible, but just where your imagination takes you, so there's this really high, swashbuckling romantic adventure to this stuff. Then you compare that to a lot of things that are written today that seem a lot more stilted, and heroic characterization is sort of looked down on as--I don't even know as what, but it's definitely not in vogue--

--As naïve. As in old-fashioned, retrograde, stupid, unsophisticated, you name it.

And that's where certain types of critics, or people who consider themselves arbiters of literature right now, a lot of their criticism comes from that place. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between your style and the modernist style, or the minimalist style?

Sure. Realism took over in the middle of the 19th century. And with realism, the form is less apprehensible to people in general, because these days particularly, it's separated from life. It's more of an intellectual construct, even though it's called realism, it's not. It doesn't fall into the natural groove that stories have always fallen into, because it's more artificial. Why is that? Well, one of the differences between the two forms, which you mentioned, is that in the old form, as you mentioned, anything can happen. Unfortunately, some people call it magical realism, or even fantasy, which really bothers me, because it's not. No, the Divine Comedy is not fantasy, and yet Dante flies around on the backs of dragons and Aeneas goes into the underworld. In previous forms of literature before realism, your imagination was allowed to work. And suddenly that's supposed to be silly or primitive, or something not worthwhile. Why is that? It's because in the 19th century, really after the Enlightenment but flowering in the 19th century, science conquered humanism and people witnessing the success and power of science--I mean look at what it can do, it can fly up in airplanes, it can cure diseases, it's a magnificent thing--then rushed to imitate it, they were conquered by it, they were converted to it. And they began to transform, mankind in general began to transform--even his relations with other men. Science and rationalization of human affairs demands what? Speed, efficiency, ruthlessness, cold-logic, etc. But human beings are not like that--we're imperfect. We're not mechanisms, despite what Jeremy Benthem might think, and despite what modern psychologists might think. We're not mechanisms, we have souls and no one will ever understand us. No amount of investigation will ever explain the human being, or explain away the soul.

What happens is that modern writers are enthralled of scientism and they follow the scientific gods and therefore they expunge from their work emotion and wonder and imagination--contradicting, 10,000 years of human history that would be familiar to us, and suddenly making a new world of their own making that's only 150 years old. And that's why it seems so sterile, because the world that we are given, the world that was created for us, that we find ourselves in, is infinitely richer than any one you can imagine out of whole cloth. And it's also something that, if you try to only deal with what you understand, is going to be very thin, because we really don't understand the things that are most important to us--where we come from, where we go when we die, why we love, how we sacrifice. All these things that are the great themes of literature have been reduced to a very schematic, scientific template by these modern critics.

And to be more specific and to be more, perhaps, accusatory, they are cowards. They are institutional cowards. They are the worst cowards in the world, because they run from emotion as if they were going to live forever. And they look down on it, they have contempt for it and one of the most enjoyable activities for them is to identify what they call sentimentality, because they don't know the difference between sentimentality and sentiment. And they attack it because they are terrible conformists. But they're conformists and they're cowards and they write according to various modern conventions. And who needs it? They are now ascendant and triumphant and I'm upholding a tradition which is dying, so I'm not going to win. But I'd rather lose and do it this way than win and be like them.

Do you see any hope?

Yes, I do. And you know why? Because these patterns in human history are stronger than any design that man can make. And they will re-emerge and people will become--I think there's already maybe evidence of it--sick of this stuff. Also, you have to be really particularly educated to believe that stuff. You have to go through years of indoctrination. And you have to be willing to follow that lead, as many people are. But there are lots of people who go to colleges, universities and even graduate schools and they simply throw that stuff off, because they are just revolted by it. And then there are people who are not as "well-educated" as these people who uphold these standards--and they are most people. They still respond to real stories and real human emotion and they have honest reactions.

Fair enough. That's a good dissection.

I wrote the introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 1988 and I dealt with that topic. You would be amazed with how much I was attacked. That book had previously sold about 15,000 copies every year, but because of that introduction, it sold three times that--45,000 copies that year because people really appreciated it. They may not run the book reviews or the literary departments at the universities, but they're there.

I think visual art has followed a similar pattern.

Absolutely, visual art is the same thing. These artists think that they have to create a whole new world. But you can't, because you can't create a new color, you can't create a new shape, really. All you can do is work with what you've got.

It seems to be missing the function of art in the first place, to do that.

They've taken out what's human in art. There's a difference between art and design, that's why we have two words, one for each of them. Most modern art, if it's not just stupid--like people jumping into a pile of horse manure--but abstract expressionism, De Kooning and stuff like that is design, really. And it can be wonderful. I like a lot of that stuff, but I don't think it's art, it's design.

How did you get your first piece published?

It was at The New Yorker. I started at about 1964, sending stories to magazines. It took me five years and I broke into The New Yorker. But it did take five years and they were five frustrating years, but I kept at it. I was in college mainly--I actually started in high school. In '64, I went down to Harper & Row in New York at the recommendation of the father of someone who had been in class at my school who was a writer. I went to see his sister, who was a big time editor at Harper & Row, and she advised me and took my stories. She read them, she had the readers read them, they wrote a report, she advised me about what to do and that's when I entered the business. That was 42 years ago.

That must have been helpful. You kind of lucked out there.

It was. The readers' reports were very encouraging for me.

Did that make the next five years even more frustrating?

Well no. I understood very well from the very beginning, and I still feel the same way, that I wasn't able to write what I wanted to write, what I really thought I was capable of if I worked hard. So I knew that I was at the beginning stages and although it was frustrating, I was not really surprised. And then senior year in college I began to publish in The New Yorker, which was good.

What was that first story--was it one that was collected later?

Yes, it's in The Dove of the East. There are stories in The Dove of the East that I wrote in high school. The first story was "Because of the Waters of the Flood." That was the first story I published. And then the second--it was accepted at the same time--was "Leaving the Church."

Those are the old days, when I took the money that I got from those stories, which was tremendous at the time, and I went to Abercrombie & Fitch and I bought a lever-action rifle, and I bought a suit in the boys department at Brooks Brothers, and I bought a car, a Peugeot. I drove across the country to Stanford where I was going to be a graduate student.

I felt as if I was entering a great tradition in American literature, you know, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway--and it's all changed now. It's totally changed. The world that I thought I was going to enter has been transformed and it's not there anymore. Which is a terrible disappointment, because I would have preferred to have less money, but to be in a more honorably conducted business and profession.

In terms of publishing?

Yes.

What's changed? How is it different?

Well, when I published first in The New Yorker, they would not publish any indecent words, any four-letter words. Now it's ... Then fiction was the first thing. They would publish two stories in the beginning--always, and they would even have some in the middle. They would publish three to four stories in an issue. Now they're lucky if they publish one at the end. The standards were much higher. In literature itself, bestsellers were Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson. And now it's The Da Vinci Code and Belva Plain and everything. There was always a lot of crap going around, but the real writers had a real place and they more or less lead the field. There were many, many places to sell short stories and they were taken seriously and people were different--they could read. They didn't watch television, Internet and video games. So it was a different world. It was quieter; it was more tranquil. Standards were totally different and I thought that's what I was going to be in for. I was willing to be poor as long as I could get a share of honor from it. But honor has largely been driven out of the business. You can only have it personally and individually. There's no structure of it anymore.

It's not necessarily the grand old tradition anymore.

No.

Do you have another novel in the works right now?

I do, but I hope you will forgive me; I never talk about them. Not because it is a secret or anything, but rather because there is so much change that goes on. The title won't [even] be the same. After my first draft until [the book] gets in print, there are about 12 drafts.

So the book you would describe right now might not be the same book that ends up on the shelf?

That's right. It's much different.

I find it very difficult to give capsule description of my books. For me, it has always been extremely difficult to do that. What I can say is that it takes place mostly in New York in 1946 and 1947 and in Paris during the war. Those elements will remain for sure.

At least people will know that they won't have to wait another 10 years for a Helprin novel.

Well, you know, its funny ... in the publicity material for Freddy and Fredericka, they said it took me 10 years to write. Well, hardly. I came out with Memoir from Antproof Case in '95 and then in '96 I came out with the second children's book and then in '97 with the third one and then in 2005 came out with [The Pacific and Other Stories], a collection of short stories, and then in 2006, Freddy and Fredericka. So in a period of 10 years, I had five books.

They were just being very strict about novels.

Yes, exactly. They want to build it up, not that anyone would care.

Usually, with some writer, they say, oh, it's his first novel in 15 years, or whatever. It's usually because he's been in an alcoholic stupor.

(Laughs) He hasn't had time to write.

He hasn't been able to, because he's been walking around bumping into things.

Speaking of addictions, in Memoir from Antproof Case, the main character possesses a strong, even violent, aversion to coffee. Is that just something that you made up out of your imagination, or are you a coffee drinker?

I've never had a cup of coffee in my life. I've never tasted it. The reason is that when I was a little kid, I went to a school where there was a vocational curriculum as well as an academic curriculum. The school changed, but until 1957, this was a private school, but it had a very strong ... the philosophy was they would teach the children mechanics as well as academics. And we had for our teacher in mechanics a retired marine major named Major Price, who had fought in the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines and in Nicaragua. He was a marine, so he was everywhere. And in the first World War, too. He was very old at the time, really old. His wife was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Price. They were in their 90s. They died in the early '60s, I think. He was the teacher who taught us mechanics, shop and that kind of stuff. And we had a giant, giant room in the school, which was full of machine tools. There was a Model T Ford that we took apart. Every year the students would take it apart, lay it out on canvas tarps, piece by piece, and then put it back together. And it was fairly clean, because it wasn't kept oiled or anything and we would crank it, but we didn't run it. We had an engine, there were Eskimo kayaks. We did electrical stuff, wood stuff. To this day, I fix everything in the house. I can fix virtually anything. I do my own plumbing. I do my own electrical work. I fix computers, electronic stuff, watches, mechanical things, dishwashers, washing machines, whatever. Because I had this terrific training as a very young child and it penetrates you. He was teaching children starting in the first grade how to use machine tools--saws, lathes and milling machines and everything.

That's unusual.

Yes, and you can get your hands chopped off. Of course, they didn't have the legal environment then that we have now. But even so. So there were all kinds of safety measures, including restraints--you'd have to put your hands inside of gloves, you couldn't go past a certain point. For certain tools you couldn't use those, he didn't have them. One of the safety measures was that he would stand with his hand on a lever. The power was transferred to the machines through leather belts that went up from the engine that drove them up to a kind of wheel on the ceiling that turned a shaft and there were other wheels on the shaft and leather belts went down to the individual tools. And the kids would stand at the tools doing stuff. So the whole thing was powered by one engine. And if he saw someone doing something wrong, he would pull the lever and it would break the motion of the machine immediately and stop it. And if you made a mistake compromising your safety, he called you before the mast, because this is how the Marines and Navy did that--it was a punishment mast. There was a pole in the place and on the pole was a shelf; it had two little white paper cups, and in one cup were green coffee beans that were unroasted and in the other were roasted dark coffee beans. Depending on the severity of your mistake he would make you chew one or two or three or four, whatever and, of course they were very bitter. Kids are very sensitive to bitterness. So I made my share of mistakes and I would have to chew these coffee beans. And it's not like eating soap. I went to a camp once where they made you eat soap, but it doesn't make you throw up, but its really bitter. And for a kid it's really hell. So I was turned against the whole idea of coffee by that. And I remember someone saying, "Would you like a cup of coffee?" and I would say, "No, thank you," because I just had no desire to drink coffee after having gone through that.

I was just repelled by the whole idea of it. And I exaggerated that for Antproof Case to use as the mechanism--since you read it you know--to explain symbolically his loyalty and love for his parents. It distorted him, you see, because he spilled the coffee, he spilled the coffee on himself and burned himself and smelled the coffee when he came in and saw his parents dead on the floor. And realized that they were dead because he had gone after the gold and had taken the gold from these men in order to go get coffee. He then, of course, had to militate against coffee, because it was the vehicle of his sin. And he associated it with his sin, which was he chose. He knew, you see, when he saw them, that they were bad and that they might be dangerous, but he was entranced by the gold. So he felt guilty for the rest of his life and he tried to expiate his sin two ways: One, by militating against coffee, and the other one was by stealing the gold from the bank to close the circle and giving it to Fumio, his not-even-son illegitimate son, so he could he could make his sin whole. Critics are so stupid; they don't understand that when they read the book, they just read it superficially and they don't get that.

It's just a character quirk to them.

Right, exactly. That's why the coffee thing. And I just used my own aversion to coffee in an exaggerated form in order to make that device. And, by the way, it's also based on a book called Confessions of Zeno by the Italian writer Italo Svevo, which is about a guy who is obsessed with cigarettes, but it's also a vehicle for saying something more important.

What do you compose your books on--a computer, a typewriter? How do you get the words on the paper?

On narrow-ruled, loose-leaf paper and a big fat loose-leaf book. Sometimes I have to spread it to two, because sometimes, for A Soldier of the Great War, for instance, I had more than 1,500 manuscript pages.

So it's all hand-written?

All hand-written, single-spaced, narrow-ruled. And then I edit it with red pen and it looks like the Rosetta Stone and then I transfer it to the word processor. I got one in about 1981; I was way ahead of everybody. And then I do many drafts using the word processor, not writing on it, but writing on it in pen and then entering it, so I don't have to re-type the whole thing. And all in all including the editing, copy-editing, my response, this that and the other thing, it's about 12 drafts.

On your Web site [www.markhelprin.com], I was intrigued by that section on recommended reading, but all it said "coming soon."

I read various books to try to figure out one, and then I think, "Well, I can't really recommend that, because it's not really ..." That's why I haven't had one. But I think I will be dipping back into the past and recommending some that might be very hard to get because they are out of print. But when I think about it I want to have a book that is just absolutely spectacular and so I may be doing that, but I have been so busy that I haven't been able to do it. So it's not there; it's not done yet.

But eventually it will come?

Eventually it should, yes.

I’m just curious: What does Mark Helprin read?

Well, I’m sitting here in my study and I’m looking at my bookshelf. My bookshelf is 50 feet long and 16 feet high. It’s got about 7,000 books in it. I’m always reading, but I seldom read what everyone else reads. It’s really weird, because if—not that I ever been to a cocktail party, I don’t go to such things, but in dinner parties—which I don’t go to either—people say, “Oh, have you read such and such?” and what they’re usually doing is talking about maybe 50 or 150 books maximum that the book reviews pay attention to in a year. And yet in America, there something like 70,000 books published and in the world many more. Actually, in America now, I think it’s something like 200,000—it’s an enormous number. In the Library of Congress they have 20 or 30 million books. And these are things that are chosen first by agents and then by publishers and then by book reviewers and generally it’s a very tiny, tiny slice. Now what I do and what I have always done is I will see a book—it could be from the library, a print book, or a bookstore, or I may see it advertised in a magazine, or just run across it by accident and read it—and I will follow my nose. Based on that, I will read another book that’s related to it. And by following my nose and following this trail rather than taking recommendations, I am led into areas where most people have never heard of the stuff I read. And it’s not popular most of the time, at all. And certainly not the rage.

Are you reading anything good right now?

Actually, I’m reading two things. I’m reading Churchill’s Marlborough and it’s 2,000 pages long, two volumes. Thus far it is a great work. It’s a great, great work. So I’m reading that. And I’m reading also William F. Buckley’s memoir, which is really nice, called Miles Gone By.

When I read the jacket flaps on your books, your life seems as colorful as one of your character’s when you just list it out. In getting these different and interesting and quirky life experiences, is that something you set out to do consciously? For instance, I’m curious: How did you, a born New Yorker, end up in the Israeli armed forces?

When I was fairly young, I looked and I saw that we have a very short span of years on Earth, right? We’re not immortal. And I said to myself, therefore, what’s the highest value—apart from responsibility, doing right, having family, etc.—other than that, when you’re young and you have options and there’s the world, what is the highest value? I thought that the thing that would be best to do would be to see as much of the world as I could. So I joined the Navy and I saw the world.

As far as the Israeli army goes, I was at the time an opponent of the Vietnam War, I think rightly—but perhaps not rightly, I’m not quite sure. It may have been one of the factors that slowed and stopped and eventually turned back Soviet expansionism and the momentum of totalitarian societies to take over the world. And it may have been at a terrible cost, but it may have been worth it. I might have been wrong there, but I think that the way the war was fought was unnecessarily destructive—in the way that we didn’t have victory and just held on and eventually lost. I don’t like the idea of losing wars.

So I was an opponent of the war, for whatever reason, and I regret that now. Now I think it was an evasion of my responsibility, because someone who may have gone in my place may have died in my place and that was not right. I gave a speech at West Point and I apologized to the corps of cadets for that. And I always will regret that. But anyway, at that point, I went into the British Merchant Navy and we were on the Atlantic heading for Norfolk and they were asking me why I wasn’t in the Army, because they knew that Americans my age were drafted. And I gave them the standard anti-Vietnam stuff and they said, “But they’re your mates.” For me that was a very important defining moment, because I realized that yes, that’s true. These were my friends; I had friends who died there. What was I doing letting them go into battle without me? So that began to change my mind. And the second thing that changed my mind was, I used to work in Mount Auburn Cemetery [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] and across the way was Cambridge Cemetery and I was working there, sitting writing and studying and there was a funeral. And they buried a boy there who was my age. And after the funeral, I went to his temporary marker—it didn’t have a stone yet—and I saw that he was born at the same exact time that I was. He was killed in Vietnam and I felt terrible about that—terribly guilty. And so then I tried to join the Marines, but they wouldn’t have me, not because I had evaded the draft, because I had legitimately had a 4-F. I went to the Israeli army instead.

At that time they were fighting the Russians—the Russians were fully integrated into both the Syrian and Egyptian armies and air forces. My cousin who was a in the Soviet Air Force was opposite me when I was in the Israeli Air Force. We might have killed each other. But it shows that war is just so totally insane, but you can’t avoid it. It happens. You have to do what you have to do.

How long were you over there?

I went in ’67 and I came back—there was a lot of back and forth—but I actually came back in ’73.

It’s no secret that you identify yourself, or have identified yourself, as a Republican. I’ve read excerpts where you have spoken about that having possibly negatively affecting your fiction writing career, your publishing career. Does that reflect how things are now, or how you think about it now?

Yes, but I don’t like to complain, because there’s no sense in it. But sure, The New York Times wrote a piece more that 20 years ago saying, “Dear Times Book Review, We’ve Discovered a Republican, Who is a Writer.” And there’s been a lot of stuff: People refusing to carry my books, refusing to read them, attacking me for ... in many circles to be a Republican is like being a Nazi.

And I say to those people: You don’t understand my positions and you don’t care about them. You set up a straw man. And the fact that the majority, at times, of the people of the United States are in your view Nazis. So who are you exactly? What is your point? Are we a fascist country, because the people have decided, recently, to give the Congress and the executive and the state governorships, largely, and the judiciary and a lot of other stuff to the Republican party? Is it because they are all stupid, or Nazis, or mean, or whatever? I mean, come on. However, in literary circles, you don’t have to deal with those questions—you don’t have to answer them, because everyone is conforming comfortably to one political view. So what can I say?

Besides your fiction work, you’re a pretty prolific political writer. How do you switch gears?

When I became a writer of fiction, I thought I would have to have another boat into which I could put my other foot. Because it’s so chancy writing fiction, I might not be able to make a living, so I had an academic career and a career in consulting and that kind of stuff—but not political as much as strategic military issues and statesmanship. So I did military service, went to graduate school in these things, studied them in graduate school. And I’ve been a member, I guess—I don’t know what to call it—of think tanks, and I still am. And I consult sometimes and do this and that and the other thing. So that I had a lifeboat. I always kept it up and I still keep it up to some extent. And as far as the more substantive aspect of that question, I do believe that it’s very important to use both sides of your brain, because I’ve found that people who only use one side limit themselves and really can’t live fully. For instance, when I was in graduate school, a fellow student came over with our professor to my apartment and we were moving. She said, “What are you going to do with all your books?” and I said, “I’m going to take them.” This was when we were moving to Israel and she said, “You’re going to take them all the way to Israel? Even novels?” You see, for her, novels were just something to be something to be thrown away, they were something to be used on an airplane. And on the other hand, you get these litterateurs who can’t even keep a checkbook and they don’t know anything about how the world works, or anything about any hard subject. And that gets to be really unimpressive, too.

Certainly, when you can’t conduct your business.

Well, it’s that they’re like fools, because they don’t understand how things work and they are very passionate about things, but it’s based on nothing. So I have always thought that it was my responsibility as a human being to know some science, history, business and mechanics as well as literature, music, poetry and painting. So that’s how it goes. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

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