When you do anything creative – from writing stories to hooking rugs – people are likely to ask you where you get your ideas.
A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new novel, Magic Words, the lightning bolt of creativity hit me in the midst of pursuing one of the most American of all activities.
I was watching TV.
The program was a PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans;” and a nice little show it was, too. All of the Yiddishe luminaries were included: Abraham Cahan and Irving Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jerry Seinfeld; Jacob Adler and Hank Greenberg and I guess, a coupla doctors and scientists.
Then there was the young man in buckskins. He only appeared for about 10 seconds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy moustache, he stood proudly behind four Indian chiefs in a posed studio photograph taken sometime in the 1880’s.
I was amazed: a boychik from Europe who somehow gained the confidence of a group of people rightly suspicious of the white man? An Israelite adventurer who once conversed with the free-living masters of the mountains and plains?
As the photograph faded from the screen, I knew I had found the subject of my next novel. All I needed now was a little research.
Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Internet (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more traditional ways. I wrote to Jewish historical societies; I haunted libraries and perused photo collections.
And the more I discovered about Julius, the more fascinating he became.
Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immigrated to America after the Civil War to join his brothers who were merchant princes in Nebraska; captured by the Ponca and eventually made their interpreter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-headed white chief with one tongue”), by the greatest chieftain who ever lived; Indian agent and trader; speaker of seven Siouxan dialects.
But two facts really sold me on Julius. First, there were the circumstances of his death. He was found dead around noon in Hanscom Park in Omaha in the Spring of 1909 – with one bullet in his breast and another in his head -and declared a suicide. The possibilities around that almost wrote themselves.
Then, in an article in the September 10, 1926 issue of The American Hebrew, I read that Julius brought a magician named “Herman the Great” to a Ponca camp to perform for the great Standing Bear and his people – and about how that night as Alexander slept, a young brave attempted to kill him for his hat, believing it to be the source of his mystic power.
For me, this was like that one good gift at Chanukkah. A magician? I’m there!
And it got even better. Further research revealed that “Herman” was in fact, Alexander Herrmann, the most famous magician in the world before Houdini and the creator of many of the famous stage illusions still amazing audiences today; the inventor of the “Cake From A Hat” and the “Floating Boy”; the wizard who sold out the Egyptian Theatre in London for 1000 straight nights.
I knew I had found my second leading man; and when I discovered that Alexander’s mother’s maiden name was Meyer, I used my author’s prerogative to declare them cousins. Besides…how else would a humble man of the plains like Julius know a prestidigitator of such distinction?
A year and a half later, I had a book. All because of 10 seconds of TV that provided a tantalizing glimpse of a man who was a member of the tribe…in more ways than one.
Gerald Kolpan‘s newest book, Magic Words: The Tale of a Jewish Boy-Interpreter, the World’s Most Estimable Magician, a Murderous Harlot, and America’s Greatest Indian Chief, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.
Sometimes they appear out of nowhere – as in the case of Prophet John McGarrigle, the clairvoyant Indian scout in my new novel, Magic Words. I was writing a passage in which one of my main characters, Julius Meyer, walks into an overheated shack seeking shelter from the cold. Inside that shack was Prophet John.
Sure, Julius was surprised, by not half as surprised as me. I had no idea who John was, what he was doing in that shack or why he was in my book. I had to write him to find out.
The story of Eli Gershonson, a Jewish peddler in the Old West, is just the opposite. He took a long and circuitous route to his supporting role in Magic Words.
Eli started life in my little son’s bedroom. He was part of an imaginary gang of “protectors” I would tell Ned about at bedtime; their job was to fight off his nightmares.
The group included the Bagel Man (the hero of a song I made up), the Guys Up The Street (some tough dudes who hung at 2nd & Kenilworth, our Philadelphia corner), and Eli Gershonson, Esq., a lawyer who would take the bad dreams to court if they dared bother my boy (nothing like a lawsuit to scare off Freddy Krueger).
It may sound a bit elaborate, but most nights, it worked.
Cut to 15 years later.
I was writing my first novel, Etta, and found myself in need of a name for a character – a Jewish peddler of the type who roamed the West by the hundreds at the turn of the century. By this time, my son was 21 and no longer needed a nightside attorney, so I appropriated Mr. Gershonson’s moniker, revoked his law degree and gave him a wagon filled with pots, pans, cloth, needles, pins and other chazerai. In the end, he appeared in less than two pages in the book, but that was all he needed to advance the plot.
I figured that was my farewell to Eli.
Then, in 2009, when I was writing Magic Words, I needed a name and background for another Jewish peddler who would be Julius Meyer’s uncle in the book. He needed to be patient, honest, and kind, but with a quiet authority.
I soon realized that the character I was envisioning had all of the qualities of the character I already had.
So, Eli Gershonson jumped from my first book to my second, pots and pan intact, though shedding some 30 years in the transition. In Magic Words, his part isn’t a page-and-a-half cameo, but a major role woven throughout the narrative. In fact, he’s one of the last characters we see in the book.
I’m thankful to Eli for allowing me to move him from one story to the next. His presence gave my two books a kind of crazy continuity, not to mention that I was afforded the great pleasure of getting to know him better.
Believe me, he’s a mensch.
When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.
Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.
I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.
I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)
My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.
I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and the sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.
And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.
In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”
Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.
I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.