My most recently published novel, The Other Side of the World, contains a 100-page novel-within-the-novel set entirely in Singapore and Borneo. The book appeared in early December, and since then readers and interviewers keep asking an obvious question: Have you ever been to Singapore and/or Borneo?
The answer: No . . .
And the response to this answer is often bewilderment, as in: How can you write about a place you’ve never seen or been to? To this point no one, including friends and reviewers who have been to Singapore and Borneo, has questioned the credibility of the Singapore and Borneo I’ve conjured up. But why should people believe that a fiction writer has to go to a place in order to write about it? An earlier novel of mine, The Stolen Jew (1981), begins in Israel, on a beach in Herzlia, and I wrote this novel before I’d ever been to Israel. The Stolen Jew also contains several sections set in the Soviet Union, both in time-present (about smuggling out a Jewish dissident), and in the nineteenth century (about a Jewish boy kidnapped to take the place of another Jewish boy for 25 year service in the Tsar’s army—the dreaded cantonist gzeyra).
I had never been to the Soviet Union.
Some years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:
When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline.
I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life—I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile. The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the twentieth century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)
But many years before this, when the story was a manuscript, I had shown it to our B’nai Israel rabbi, Philip Graubart, himself a marvelous novelist and short story writer. Philip and I were friends, and I asked him to take a look at it, especially because in the story I had detailed a day in Rabbi Saul Gewirtz’s life. In that single day, Rabbi Gewirtz is attacked by a man with AIDS, who spits on the rescued Torah, and accuses the rabbi of being a heartless unforgiving God and smug Jewish doctor rolled into one; he is sexually assaulted and cursed by a female congregant with whom he had once had an affair; he is harangued by a Russian Jewish emigré whose children despise him, and whose wife has left him, and who, weeping away, asks the rabbi why God plays jokes with honest men. Continue reading
Although my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.
During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.
Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:
I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.
What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound. Continue reading