Thursday, August 31, 2006
It's the first day of public school in Los Angeles but I miss the traffic by leaving home at 7 a.m.
Thirty minutes later, I sit in the Luxe Hotel with an acquaintance (he missed a thick line of black hairs by his nose when he shaved this morning) who has a B.A. in Political Science from Cal State Northridge. He's lugged along three heavy photo albums. He says they are of him with various conservatives. Would I like to look?
I say yes and we go through every page. Sometimes there are four shots (all 8 by 10s) of him with the same guy.
The conservatives include former California governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, as well as Allan Keyes, Orin Hatch, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Phil Gramm...
On most every page, the guy says to me either "That's a good photo," or "That's not a good photo" or "What do you think?"
Afterwards, the guy shows his photo albums around to various conservatives including Larry Greenfield of the Republican Jewish Coalition. (If someone will buy a blogad for my site, I'll pay my $100 a year dues.)
My complaint about the lack of protein at breakfast has been answered by a big bowl of cottage cheese. I pile it on my plate along with the fruit and the danishes. I must be holding up pretty well in my fifth decade as I get some giggles from the 50 year old girls and compliments on my new haircut.
One blonde at my table is convinced I'm going to ridicule her on my blog. But my blogging motto is -- first, do no harm.
Heather's topic: "Seeing today's immigrants straight."
She tackles that myth that Hispanics' strong family values are going to redeem America. She says the Hispanic family is in a nosedive. Over 50% of Hispanics in the U.S. are born out of wedlock (it's about 68% for Blacks, 23% for Whites, and 15% for Asians).
"Even liberals will say there is no worse way to begin life than in a single-parent family.
During a typical year, 1000 single young Hispanic women will give birth to 92 kids, compared to 66 Blacks, 28 Whites and 22 Asians.
"Prisons assiduously avoid keeping statistics on illegal aliens."
"The crime rate among second generation Hispanics is eight times that of first generation..."
"Hispanics are not able to keep their kids out of gang life."
I think Janet Levy said that only 40% of Hispanic kids in Los Angeles graduate highschool.
"In th 1900s, you didn't need to know how to read to work in a factory. In today's information economy, you need to graduate highschool to get a good job."
"It's not just a status issue (legal vs. illegal) but a behavioral one. It's a matter of how Hispanics behave once they are here."
"Because Hispanics are not getting married, they are wedded to the state."
"It does not surprise me when liberals wink at the rule of law, but it drives me crazy when conservatives wink at the rule of law (when Bill Kristol, David Brooks, the WSJ Editorial Page, etc, say it does not matter whether immigrants are legal or illegal)."
After 20 minutes, Heather stops speaking and takes a slew of questions, all on immigration. One man's so angry that he accidentally waves his middle finger as he rants.
"Participation in school lunch programs is dropping among Whites and Blacks but rising astronomically among Hispanics."
Heather says the Wall Street Journal called her racist (though not by name).
I want to give her a hug but instead I offer her a ride home. I want to protect her precious white virginity from the fecund hordes of Mexicans infesting our public transportation.
Before she realizes what she's getting into, Heather says that would be nice. Then she comes to her senses.
"You still have the van?" she asks.
"In that case, I think I'd rather take the air-conditioned limo."
I should be used to such rejection by now, but it still stings.
I leave without asking Heather: "How many men can a woman love in her life?"
Author Jonathan Ames
* Was there a moment when you realized you were going to be a writer for the rest of your life?
I don't think there was a single moment. It's not something I've quite contemplated and at this moment I'm not sure I'll be a writer for the rest of my life (confidence is a bit low at this precise second.)
* What parts of your work and of your life have the most meaning for you? Bring you the most joy?
When people write me kind notes that something I've written has brought them some pleasure; I then feel that even if what I do is pretty meaningless and frivolous that once in a while it sort of helps another person.
* What inspires you and depresses you about Jewish life?
It depresses me that Jews can't seem to find peace in ths world. I'm inspired by some of the old teachings -- the wisdom and the humanity that is present.
* What's the story of you and God?
I pray. I believe in prayer.
* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A tennis pro.
* What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?
I didn't really hang out with a group, but when I sometimes did it was the theater and band crowd, not quite nerds but very close.
* Would you describe your best and worst interviewee experiences and what made them good and bad?
Worst: the interviewer slammed a door on me on purpose I later realized. He didn't like me. Best: it's private.
* What is wonderful and what sucks about the writing life?
Wonderful: I'm my own boss. Sucks: Hard to make a living and sometimes you write things that hurt people and you didn't intend this and so then you never want to write again or do anything again and you feel like a criminal and you can't shake that feeling.
Fascinated By Novelist Ayelet Waldman
As a kid, I was taken aback when my mother said she loved my dad more than me. Then she explained that was the nature of the universe. I accepted it.
Then, over the past few weeks, I spoke to novelists who freely admitted that they loved their kids more than their spouse. I found that disconcerting. I want my wife to love me more than she loves the kids.
Jim Jones emails:
I have a friend who's become depressed after returning from Israel. He can't figure out the point of living in the diaspora unless you're a big shot making gobs of money.
Visiting Israel was life-changing for me in July 2000. I returned full of love for Judaism and my trip leader Peppy. I dated her for a few up-and-down weeks and then began going to minyan every morning and studying a page of Talmud. By the time I was thrown out of shul ten months later, I was on the way to changing my life for the better.
Life in the diaspora seems so tame compared to the intensity of Jerusalem.
* You write that Queen Isabella was neither saint nor sinner. Is that your approach to all of your characters or are some truly saints or sinners? What would one have to do to be a saint or sinner to you?
I used that that terminology simply to streamline an understanding of Isabella of Castile, to help readers quickly grasp the contrasting images that have been attached to that queen throughout history --- as saint, sinner, and visionary. None of my books - including the biography on Queen Isabella - categorize people in such narrowly defined terms. Each human being has both good and bad qualities, sometimes weighing more heavily on one side of the spectrum than the other, but rarely is anyone all good or all bad. I don't see people in those terms. If I did, I guess I would characterize "sinners" as people who routinely put their own needs ahead of others, are destructive to loved ones, acquaintances, and to society as a whole. A saint, I suppose, would have the opposite traits, that is, would always put the needs of others and of society ahead of his own.
* Any incidents in childhood that presaged your career?
I've been told that I was a creative child. My parents certainly fostered that by giving me art, piano, and ballet lessons. By early adolescence I was a skilled enough ballerina to perform professionally and continued doing so until I entered college. My real loves though, were reading and writing. By the time I was nine I wrote a little collection of stories about our dog which apparently impressed my teacher. Still, it wasn't until I was in college that I realized I wanted to be a professional writer.
* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really wasn't sure but I thought it would be something in the arts, perhaps choreography, something involving the theater, or writing.
* What crowd did you hang out with in high school?
I was "unusual" I guess you would say. I was not part of the "cool" crowd, the cheerleaders and football players, or the crowd that had wild parties on weekends. Frankly I had little time because I was dancing professionally most weekends or in rehearsal. During the week I took daily ballet classes, studied hard, participated in school clubs and served on the yearbook. Most of my friends were a scattered collection of students, but not part of one particular crowd.
* Is there a particular book of yours that has the most meaning to you, is your favorite, or the one you recommend to people to read first?
That's a tough call. To see where I began as an author and where women were twenty-five years ago, I'd suggest The New Suburban Woman: Beyond Myth and Motherhood published in 1982 at a time when feminist ideas were just taking hold in the suburbs. That book grew out of my work as a contributor to the New York Times and is a snapshot of an era when the suburbs were predicated on cheap fuel and free woman power, an illustration of just how far women's lives have evolved in a quarter of a century.
Another option is American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post, a biography of the romantic life of the philanthropic breakfast cereal heiress. That book depicts the life of a beautiful woman whose vast wealth, pluck, and brains enabled her to live far more independently than other women would or could for another fifty years.
* How do your kids react to your work?
My daughters seem to be proud of my work and marvel at the difficulties women of my generation encountered in suburbia juggling careers and child-rearing. Of course being my daughters, what else could they say? Let's face it, kids continue to see their parents as powerful figures even in early adulthood and it's often not until they are middle-aged themselves that they begin to assess their parents' contributions more objectively. So in that sense the jury is still out.
* How has your choice of work affected you and your life?
Being a writer has enabled me to live widely, to travel through time and space in ways that most people don't experience, to interview others ranging from first ladies to the disenfranchised, to delve into social, historical and political situations with depth, and, ultimately to understand the world and how my own life fits into it. For me, being a writer has been a great alternative to living just one brief life. That's not to say that being a writer is easy. It isn't. You work alone and do so daily for long hours; you don't collect a regular paycheck; people perceive the time you spend in your home office or study as not " real work" which can be interrupted for a chat, an errand, lunch or simply postponed. Most of your satisfaction is private - the turn of a good phrase, the digging out of an important fact, the completion of a chapter - these are the things that really matter to me, as I think that do for most writers. Oddly enough while we're always pleased with the publication of a book or article, it's the writing process itself that is most exciting.
* How do you decide whether or not to use a particularly juicy (factually true and confirmed) anecdote about a character? For instance, would you out someone as gay?
I am not a tabloid or sensationalist writer. By that I mean one who exploits or distorts " juicy" facts to create a best - seller. Instead I try to make an honest assessment of those I'm writing about, albeit while still including those salacious facts if they are important to an understanding of the subject. Perhaps that reflects my newspaper background. In any case, my usual working method is to uncover the relevant facts of a story line and use them to support, enlarge, or dramatize the narrative in order to make it that character or his story as realistic as possible. As it happens, one character in American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post turned out to be gay - a fact that was reported in several newspapers, in photos, and even mentioned in a previously-published book. Since that character was key to Mrs. Post's life, he and his sexual orientation had to be mentioned. To do otherwise would have been irresponsible.
* Have you liked all of your protagonists? If not, which ones?
Writing a biography is somewhat akin to having a close friend or a life mate. By and large you admire them, but there are certain aspects or characteristics that you are bound to find offensive. So it has been with my protagonists. One of the most difficult things about writing biographies is that you have advance information about the lives of your protagonists and know when they are about to make a mistake, act badly or make a poor decision. "Stop! Don't do that!" you desperately want to tell your protagonist . Yet you can do nothing to prevent them. Then, shaking your head with disapproval, you as writer are compelled to describe that behavior or decision and ultimately, its consequences.
* How do you know when you've done good work?
It feels good when I've completed it. On a second read, it still feels good. On a third read, I'm still pleased with the work. What have you sacrificed to be a writer? A steady income, benefits, colleagues with whom you work every day - and most of all, uncertainty about how each book will be received.
* What do you do best and worst as a writer?
I think that I'm adept at bringing characters to life, organizing a story line and painting physical descriptions of scenes. My worst work as a writer? Finding a subject that will coincide with the latest trends in the popular culture.
* What were the biggest fears you had to conquer to accomplish what you have?
The simple answer is that I won't be good enough. There is always the fear that I will leave something important - a fact, a relevant historical event, an analysis - out of a book I am writing. As a young writer coming from a journalistic background, I remember one editor constantly telling me to be less objective, to "write in my own voice." To this day, it's the balance between those twin shoals of subjectivity and objectivity that remain my biggest fears in non-fiction work.
* Was your neutrality about the claims of spiritualism a reflection of your views or a professional writing decision?
Both. The truth is that no one can "prove" those claims even today.
* I assume your emotional attitude to your protagonists is expressed on the page? For instance, you seem to adore Marjorie Post? Could you devote a book to somebody you hated?
I actually did not adore Marjorie Post. There were times I wanted to scold her. Perhaps I should have criticized her more in her biography. I believe that it is possible for an author to write a book about someone they hated, although more commonly they are likely to be intrigued or curious about that character than to hate them. Certainly there were aspects of Queen Isabella that I despised from the start, but by researching her life and writing her biography, I was able to understand how a queen so seemingly filled with compassion for her subjects and so concerned with widows and orphans could start the Spanish Inquisition and heartlessly kill or exile the Jews and Moors (Arabs) of Spain who refused to convert to Catholicism.
* How much room do you give yourself to speculate in your books?
That's another set of shoals through which the nonfiction writer must steer his narrative. In the purest form of nonfiction writing, such as in newspapers and certain magazines, just the facts are to be expressed. Even the mere act of shaping that news story, however, requires that the writer has an angle or point of view, which he later "proves" with the facts he has collected.
A case can be made that biographies are expanded news stories, which the writer, using facts, must shape into an interesting narrative. Inevitably, no matter how thorough the research, every aspect of that life cannot be explained by facts. Consequently, if all evidence points to X in a biography but is not directly stated, I will speculate. At the same time, I make sure to let the reader know that I am speculating by using words or phrases like " perhaps," " in all likelihood," "probably," etc. "
* The Reluctant Spiritualist. In what sense were these women proto-feminists? In what sense are you a feminist? Would it have been a better read if you had built to a conclusion? Did that tempt you? In the war between fact and story, where do you come down? What techniques do you use to try to pull together a coherent story out of such contradictory facts as in Maggie's story?
The early spiritualists embraced the concepts of sexual equality and the brotherhood/sisterhood of all souls, just as did the first suffragists. Many women who were early spiritualists were also the first suffragists, most famously, Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker. The same factors that prompted a liberalization of traditional religions and attitudes towards women in the early nineteenth century also led to the abolitionist cause. Yet by the 1870s the suffragists had broken with many of the tenets of the American spiritualist movement -- especially after Victoria Woodhull's unsuccessful bid for the U.S. presidency.
Having said that, I agree that some of the first spiritualists were proto-feminists. Paradoxically, my protagonist, the dependent Maggie Fox, never really was. Others who embraced the movement were. Many of the female mediums who imitated Maggie Fox and her younger sister Katy were unusually " liberated" for that age. Freely and without hesitation they often "spoke" in public before mix-sexed audiences, albeit in a trance state; they collected money for their spiritualist services; many achieved financial independence; they traveled on the circuit alone or at least without men ; some of them divorced or selected "soul mates" for their lovers in lieu of their wedded husbands.
Were they proto-feminists? The evidence described above and in The Reluctant Spiritualist says yes. If, however, you look at the "official" genesis of the suffragist/women's history movements, especially around the time of Victoria Woodhull's rise to prominence, spiritualism was ultimately marginalized from that history.
You've asked if I was tempted to connect the two - spiritualism and women's rights - and build that to a conclusion in my book. Of course I was, but there were two reasons against that. First, the book depicted the strange life of Maggie Fox and was not primarily focused upon the relationship between spiritualism and women's rights. Secondly those two movements initially paralleled each other but were not necessarily or ultimately intertwined.
I am a feminist. That is why I often write about women and their lives. I believe that unless the lives of important women are recorded and preserved, they will be forgotten.
* To what extent do you want to psycho-analyze your protagonists?
I would never want to psycho-analyze my subjects any more than I would want to psycho-analyze a friend or my husband. One of the delights of being a writer is becoming sufficiently intrigued or excited about a character to want to research his life and learn more about him. If I were a shrink, my psycho-analysis would be far more clinical and dry than the story I would hope to craft about him or her from a literary perspective.
Many thanks for the interview, Luke. Having answered your questions, I feel that you've psycho-analyzed me!
An Interview With My Attorney
I interview my attorney Justin Levine (Levine2001@aol.com) August 25, 2006.
Justin, who has an older brother and sister: "I grew up in Phoenix. I wanted to be a film director. In highschool, I mainly hung out with drama geeks. I had one steady girlfriend."
Luke: "Why did you go to law school?"
Justin: "I had been fired from one job in television post-production. I had another job at a talent agency that wasn't working out. Like a lot of people, I didn't know what to do with my life."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about being an attorney?"
Justin: "I love that I can help my friends when I want to. It allows me to psychologically punch back when certain people are talking down to me, perhaps not aware that I have a law degree. You have arrogant people out there who thrive on having information that other people don't have access to.
"I did not find law school difficult. It is the kind of thing that anyone can do if they apply themselves. Unfortunately, there's a system in place, the bar associations, which limit the practice of law. Given that you are dealing with the third branch of government, it should be more of an open practice. I enjoy fighting for free speech.
"That said, if I were stuck at a big law firm, I'd be miserable."
Luke: "What was your role in the Sydney Blumenthal vs. Matt Drudge libel suit?"
Justin: "During law school, I worked as a clerk for David Horowitz's Individual Rights Foundation. It took a lot of cases pro bono.We had gotten the Blumenthal vs. Drudge case. At the time, Drudge was much like you, sitting in a room with few resources, and here he was being sued by one of the top advisors to the president. I was put on researching libel defense and personal jurisdiction. Blumenthal was suing Drudge in Washinton D.C. Drudge lived in Los Angeles. Did Drudge have enough minimum contacts in Washington to allow him to be sued there?
"After I passed the bar, there was down time in the Drudge case. I left the Individual Rights Foundation to take a job at Paramount. Shortly thereafter, the case settled."
Luke: "How was your year working for Playboy?"
Justin: "It was cool having Playboy magazines around and the email email@example.com holds cachet. There was nothing special about it beyond that. I never made it to the Playboy mansion."
Luke: "How long have you worked in talk radio?"
Justin: "Close to ten years. I'm one of three producers on the Bill Handel morning show on KFI. That involves consulting with Bill on the topic selection. If a complex is meaty, I might gather the most salient facts. It's also tracking down guests and convincing them to come on. It's also dealing with fan mail and hate mail and updating the KFI640.com website.
"I used to screen for the Matt Drudge show [Sunday nights].
"I had an ex-girlfriend who worked in the building. We weren't getting along. She complained about me, that I said hello to her and talked to her. She did not want me speaking to her. Near the end, that became fine with me. Unfortunately, the management decided to take her word for it and disregard my end of the story. It was a trumped up way to get rid of me because I was making more money than they really wanted to pay me."
Email Luke if you have any questions of general interest for my attorney.
Fat People Don't Interest Me
The only reason I kept reading Rachel Kadish's book From A Sealed Room Friday night was that I was stuck at shul with only the Bible and prayer book to comfort me. So I kept reading even though the main character was a middle-aged mother (Tami) with a saggy body.
(The only way I'm going to be interested in someone with a saggy body (either in real life or literature) is if they are smart.)
Then, on page 41, the protagonist switched to the younger (circa 20 yo) and presumably hotter woman (Maya) and my interest turned on.
I prefer to read (or watch movies) about the smart rather than the dumb, the successful rather than the failed, the beautiful rather than the ugly, the slim rather than the fat, the clean rather than the dirty, and, most important of all, the smart rather than the dumb.
I don't think I'm alone in these preferences. I heard stories that an Orthodox rabbi at his outreach shul in Los Angeles discouraged fat women from coming because they'd put off the Hollywood celebrities he sought for their big donations.
My biggest objection to male-male sex is that I don't find it aesthetically pleasing.
Why not write of the dead the same way you would if the person was living?
Death does not morally improve anyone.
Reading Samuel C. Heilman's book When a Jew Dies, I realize that it was an ancient belief (still prevalent among those with a primitive mindset) "that one must not speak ill of the dead lest they reciprocate and, with their now superior spiritual power (an inversion of their obviously inferior bodily power), curse those who fail to grieve for them."
I am constantly looking for areas where I have a comparative advantage over other writers. Writing about those who've just died is frequently an opportunity for me because I feel no compunction about writing the truth, even if hurts the feelings of the survivors.
Israel Will Not Be Saved By Your Boring Travel Report
The worst thing to come out of Israel's war with Hezbollah is the endless emails I receive from Jewish fundraising organizations trumpeting some dull travel report by an American Jew wishing to save Israel from its own incompetence.
Who created this monster?
I've yet to read one of these reports that was worth my time.
I'm often asked why I don't write more about Israel and other matters of obvious concern for my readers. It's because I have nothing to add.
The essential ingredients for a hyped but lifeless travel report:
* Immediacy as a substitute for interesting.
"I am writing these lines while preparing to board a plane for Israel." (Rick Richman, Jewish Press)
"I return early to Jerusalem with the indefatigable blogger Atlas Shrugs, who has been traveling with our group and covering the trip on her essential blog. We are meeting at the King David Hotel with former UN Ambassador Dore Gold for an 8 p.m. conference call with bloggers in the United States." (Rick Richman, Jewish Press)
* Mundane details.
"Our wake-up call is at 5:45; breakfast is at 6:15; we are on our bus at 6:45; and at 7 the bus rolls out." (Rick Richman, Jewish Press)
CAA literary agent Matthew Altman and Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein flew to Israel this summer and started the Journal's first blog. But for what?
I've yet to read anything in these efforts that's superior to the mainstream media's reporting. People should concentrate their writing on areas where they have a comparative advantage.
Now this is great writing -- Robert J. Avrech's "Scenes from a Wedding."
Hollywood’s Anti-Terror Ad
LF: I've heard you described as a "formalist." How do you feel about that?
Katharine: I'm getting used to the idea. I was surprised when Madison Bell called me a formalist when he was teaching my first novel and I visited his class last Spring, when I was Kratz Writer in Residence at Goucher College. But on reflection it does kind of fit. Okay, I'm a formalist. I do in fact care deeply about structure and form, and it is the way I conceive of my novels and write them. I feel a bit like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain who, when informed that one can only express oneself in poetry or prose, replies, "By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it, and I am much obliged to you for having taught me that."
LF: The character George Botkin almost took over your Triangle book?
KW: Oh, I don't think so.
LF: Do you struggle to keep your characters in their place?
KW: Not really. I don't understand writers who speak as if their characters were little figures perched on their laptops, hopping on the keys while they sit there helplessly. But then, as a formalist, I would say that, wouldn't I? Seriously, I do feel that my fiction emerges from a character in a situation. How I write it is the narrative strategy, but who that character is, why he is there, what he wants, what he does to get what he wants -- that's where the fiction begins for me. But my characters serve the stories. I have never felt that they have taken over the stories.
LF: Does the distinction between literary and commercial fiction mean something to you?
KW: I think of literary fiction as being character-driven, and I also think of literary fiction as being concerned with the language, with the words on the page. I think of commercial fiction as being about story story story, with quality of language or narrative structure being of little consequence to the writing and of little interest to the reader.
LF: What part of writing is most interesting to you?
KW: I have never thought of writing in parts. I am not sure if you mean process (first drafts, outlines, writing the last pages the first time) or elements of a finished novel (character development, suspense, structure, imagery) or even the business side of it (writing a proposal, submitting a manuscript, getting a contract). ALL OF IT interests me. Which is to say, none of this fails to interest me.
LF: Do you love or hate the process of writing?
KW: Oh, both. Sometimes you write because the only thing -- the only, only thing -- even worse than writing is NOT writing. It's like chipping away in a mine with a bent teaspoon. But that's what you do.
LF: How has your occupation of writing affected you?
KW: I am sure that my daughters could answer this for you very thoroughly, re their childhoods, since I would be that mother who never made costumes for the school play and rarely volunteered for field trips, and so on. When you write you don't have a 9 to 5 job, you are always writing mentally even if not physically. Having a writer for a monther is having a mother who is not always present, even when she is present.
In other senses, being a writer has affected me in every moment of my waking life. Being that person on whom nothing is lost, taking James's famous advice to the young writer, comes naturally to me in the sense that I can be on a tedious line at Motor Vehicles and overhear something entirely worthwhile. Every random experience is potentially intriguing.
LF: What's the story of you and God?
KW: Not much of a story here. I suppose I would cautiously put up my hand for the agnostic group.
LF: What role has Judaism played in your life? Where does "Jewish" fall in your identity? The primary way you classify yourself or an incidental way?
KW: I come from a mixed background. My mother was a Warburg (my maternal grandfather was James P. Warburg) on one side and the daughter of an Episcopalian of British heritage on the other side (my maternal grandmother was the songwriter Kay Swift). My mother grew up with no awareness of her own Jewish identity whatsoever, despite being a Warburg in New York City, where we call the Jewish Museum The Jew Mu because we feel entitled to do so, since it was Uncle Felix's house.
My father was born in the back of a grocery store in Brooklyn in 1910, and was raised in an Orthodox household. So by some measures I am three-quarters Jewish, and I do feel like a Jew, most of the time, I have to say, except when JEWS TELL ME I AM NOT A JEW. Because of the matrilineal requirement. So here I am, with my Jewish relatives telling me I am Protestant, and my Protestant relatives telling me I am Jewish. This is where a novelist comes from, for sure. None of my Jewish identity is about belief so much as cultural heritage and identity. I certainly take this up in a major way in Triangle, which has now identifed me as a Jewish writer. You, for example, would probably not have come looking for me after reading The Music Lesson, my second novel, which features an Irish American Catholic woman embroiled with an IRA splinter group.
I am married to a Jewish man. One of our daughters identifies herself as Jewish and the other doesn't, though we certainly identified ourselves as Jews in their childhoods. We didn't belong to a temple, but we had an annual tradition of attending services at Yale Hillel, and we would usually storm out in the middle when the rabbi would make a statement about how being a Jew is remembering who your enemies are, and then we would drive home and discuss our outrage -- so that is pretty the heritage of our family and how we honored the high holy days.
LF: Do all of your books have equal meaning to you or is one special and why?
KW: They each have certain meaning for me. I can't really pick one out and say this is the best, or this one is different. It really is like having four very different children. My four published novels are each very different, one from the other, which is the only way I know how to work. I cannot imagine tilling the same row finer and finer the way some writers do.
LF: How do you know when you've done good work?
KW: I feel it. I know it. I am a very critical reader. Most of what I read disappoints me, even though I am a very optimistic and generous reader. When I have written something that really succeeds -- and I know how grandiose this sounds, but what the hell, I'll say it -- it moves me.
LF: What have you sacrificed to be a writer?
KW: A certain amount of socializing, a loss of time spent on other pursuits, from tennis to gardening to travel to developing other sorts of skills....but ultimately, the greatest sacrifice of all, the thing you have to give up if you want to write? That would be not writing. You have to give up the not writing to get to the writing. It's hard to do, and for some people, tragically, it is impossible to do. I got a late start (my first novel was published the same year I turned 40) but I figured it out before it was too late.
LF: What do you do best and worst as a writer?
KW: What I do best as a writer? Oh, find the best reviews and unpolitic blurbs and see what the critics say. What do I do worst? I feel very unproductive and undisciplined. I think I do worst at just engaging with it, getting it done as thoroughly as I know in my heart I should be doing it. .
LF: Were there any events in childhood that prefigured your adult work?
KW: My entire childhood was in effect several lifetimes worth of material for my sensibility as a novelist.
LF: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
KW: An adult. Seriously. I couldn't wait. Now that I have been an adult all these years, I think I have a much clearer sense of the playful little child inside me who in fact helps me do my best work.
LF: Could you have a protagonist you hated?
KW: To a degree, yes, but not entirely. I have certainly featured characters who are not very sympathetic, from Victor the toeless, adulterous Auschwitz survivor in my first novel to the possessed, relentless feminist scholar Ruth Zion in Triangle. But they do have some redeeming features, in the end, and they are not the main characters.
LF: Do you ever have trouble entering and leaving your vivid fantasy world?
KW: Yes, in the sense that it is hard to return to quotidien needs and dinner time and going to the dentist and being with family members at certain moments in the flow of writing. This is why going off to write alone for two or three weeks at certain key moments in the writing of my novels has always been a really productive and sane thing to do.
LF: How has marriage/motherhood affected your writing?
KW: I am married to a writer, which is mostly a good thing for the writing, but sometimes we are both in the same place with our work and it's hard. I think being in the swim of life, being so deeply connected to other human beings in all these profound ways has given me far more insight into how people are than I could have ever imagined it on my own as a solitary disconnected writer in a garrett.
LF: What do you most want from your kids aside from their happiness?
KW: I want them to be people who give more to the world than they take from the world.
LF: You seem so serious in all of your pictures.
KW: I don't think I am so serious, really. I think you would find some sunnier, earlier author photos if you Google images, and on my website -- for Triangle it just seemed wrong to be too lighthearted-looking, you know?
LF: Who is your husband?
KW: My husband is Nicholas Fox Weber. He is the author of the controversial biography of the painter Balthus (whose biggest secret was his Jewish background, by the way), Patron Saints, and many other books, mostly about the visual arts. His new book (out next year) is about Le Corbusier. And he runs the Albers Foundation.
*Why did you write this book?
I think our government is too supportive of the Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I also felt that the Defense Department does too much for the oil companies in that region – the military becomes like a security department that the oil companies get for free from the U.S. taxpayer. I also wanted to tell a story and enjoy the benefits of being a writer. You get to communicate with many people at a deeper level.
* What surprised you the most about your time in Iraq? What are the prospects for that country?
I am fairly hopeful for Iraq, maybe 75% positive that the situation will improve. I was surprised at three things: First, some Iraqis are quite intelligent and organized, I think more so than other Arab countries. You could see that Baghdad had been a nice city back in the early 1970s. Second, they are so, so, so proud. They are fiercely proud of their history and accomplishments. Last, I was surprised at how peaceful and loving some of the Shii' can be. Most of the Shiites that I met were passive and caring people, not at all the stereotype of Arabs. The Iraqi Shii' that support Hezbollah and Iran are in the minority – usually they are the uneducated and poor.
* Did you keep notes during your time in Iraq?
Instead of notes, I brought a mini-DV cam with me and shot a lot of film. I am editing it together as a sort of personal documentary. In it, I mainly concentrate on reconstruction activities that took place during the day. We re-built schools, hospitals, fire stations, sewer and water. My experience was not about fighting the insurgency, which primarily takes place at night. I hope to finish editing it and allow historians and possibly even teachers to use it. It has a kind of dry or academic slant to it. There's no nudity, sex or even violence.
* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be like Robyn Masters, the novelist who owns the estate where Magnum P.I. lived. Some of my friends went into Special Forces, etc so they could be like Magnum. I was always thinking, 'Why be Magnum when you could own the estate?'
* What crowd did you hang out with in high school?
I was always the guy who got along with everyone. I hung out with mostly the speech and debate crowd or student government kids. I tried to play sports and tried to be a musician, but I wasn't very good at either. I was still friendly to the jocks and the band nerds.
* How many years did you spend in the Armed Forces? Why did you quit? Now, what work do you do?
I spent four years on active duty. I left active duty back in the 1990s because it was not really a career opportunity. There were too many chances that I could put a lot of years in and then not quite make it to retirement age. Then, I rejoined the Army Reserves, just for something to do. I was called-up as a Reservist and sent to Iraq. I still am in the Army Reserve though I think I will have to go inactive reserve because of my day-job. Currently, I work as a consultant for RLG International and ironically I primarily consult the oil companies. We provide leadership and management coaching that helps them prevent accidents and environmental problems.
* What do you think you do best and worst as a writer?
This is a difficult question. Hopefully, I am getting better. I believe that if you really work at it, you can get better at all aspects. That's not just my opinion, but brain science backs that up. Certainly talent gives you a starting place. I think am good at relating real stories and giving people an insider's view on how things actually work in the CIA, State Department, and military. After having worked with a professional editor on my first book, I know that I need to work on clarity – avoiding the possibility of a sentence being misunderstood. I probably should also work a bit on making my work accessible to more people. I would like to write books that attract a wider audience – in part so more people learn about what is going on in the world and how our government is involved. It's our government and our military after all.
What Would A Wife Say To Her Husband Before He Leaves For War?
I'm writing a movie scene (the couple is around 35 with kids) but I don't want it to be cliches such as "I love you" and "I believe in you."
I've heard the phrase a few times but never really understood it. I guess attractive young women cruise MySpace and look for men who like to be yelled at and abused. They email pictures of themselves and get the guys to give them money and in exchange the young ladies abuse the guys via email or phone but never meet them.
I found a fem dom website which read:
Who Works Harder? Homemaker or Outsider Worker?
All these women called in to the Dennis Prager show and said they, the homemakers, had it harder.
Prager's producer Allen Estrin said the men were too busy at work to call in.
I don't know much about Isabella except that Tomas de Torquemada's Inquisition flourished under her reign and she all of a sudden forced all Jews to either leave her country in 1492 or convert to Christianity.
So I found Nancy Rubin's even-handed, sometimes admiring, and always sympathetic approach to Isabella (there's but one chapter on the expulsion of the Jews, about 1% of the book) hard to take.
Nancy begins: "In truth, Isabella was neither saint nor sinner. Ultimately her monumental accomplishments were simply rooted in human fallibility."
Yeah, well, that's what happens when you eject the Jews.
May Isabella burn in hell.
Rabbi Zalman Manela (of EnglishTorahTapes.com)
Dennis Prager: "The dominant feature of a society [with little marriage] is secularism."
"Secular life is just boring. Imagine saying, 'Let's all get together in Chicago because Jerry and I have decided to live for each other.'"
"Religious life is communal."
"Nothing has the same clout as saying I was at your wedding."
I remember chatting with a cute young blonde at a Jewish singles event at the Century Club in Century City in 1994. I was telling her about Dennis Prager. She said, "That's my dad." It was Anya, the only time I met her.
Congressman Tom Tancredo Speaks to the Wednesday Morning Club on His New Book - In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America's Border and Security
From David Horowitz's email:
As I walk into the Four Seasons for Tuesday's lecture, Melrose Larry Green plays the piano like a pro. After every number, he stands up and applauds himself. He keeps announcing he'll perform in Palm Springs in a few weeks.
When we seat ourselves for lunch, Larry walks around to every table and urges people to get out the Republican vote in November. His self-promoting personality grates on some members of the conservatives crowd (there's one non-white person in the group, half the members seem to have one foot in the grave).
Cathy Seipp arrives with her daughter Maia Lazar, who just broke up with her boyfriend. We sit together. We look forward to hearing Tancredo, a fireball who got rapturous applause at the WMC's Immigration conference last year.
Maia just broke up with her boyfriend.
I spot Pat Boone, who I interviewed for KAHI radio 20 years ago. He looks unchanged.
Actor Ed Ames (Ames Brothers was a 1950s TV show) sits near him.
Tancredo, tanned and dynamic, sits next to David Horowitz.
Jim Jones writes me:
Maia discusses what she learned from her etiquette at the Reagan Ranch retreat for 24 young conservatives ($1800 for a month). She places her knife and fork at right angles to indicate she's finished with her plate.
Miss Lazar will try out for at least two sororities as she begins at UCSD in a few weeks. She says one of the sororities uses sharpies to draw on the fat spots of potential recruits.
I tell Maia to eat no more bread.
Cathy snaps at me to leave her daughter alone.
I ask an old Jewish man at our table if he's ready to get angry. He says he's too old to be angry but that his wife is angry about illegal immigration.
Tancredo says that 27% of federal prisoners are non-citizens (90% are illegal aliens).
Our enemy is the cult of multiculturalism, the belief that all cultures are morally equal, that there's nothing special about Western civilization.
He praises the work of Samuel Huntington.
When he worked at the federal Department of Education, Tancredo found a textbook which began: "Columbus came to America and destroyed paradise."
As Tancredo speaks at highschools, he finds the kids are willing to cheer for their school and for their team, but no more than 10% are willing to say that the United States is the greatest country on earth. When he poses that question, the kids look uncomfortable and stare at their teachers.
Tom went to an inner-city school where the kids were overwhelmingly black and groping each other in the hallways. The place was bedlam.
He asked the students, "How many people do you know have left the United States to make a better life for themselves in Pakhistan (or any country)?"
Tancredo cites Sun Tzu on the Art of War: Know your enemy and know yourself.
"Terrorism is not an entity. It is a tactic.
"I almost fell out of my chair when President Bush said we are at war with Islamic fascism."
Tom calls Grover Norquist (who says that Tancredo will be responsible for Republicans losing elections for the next 20 years) a "patriot for profit."
Wearing cowboy clothes, Tom met the president at an airport in Denver. "Spiffy clothes," said the president. "Are you in cognito?"
"In Colorado," Tancredo replied.
It was their longest conversation.
"We don't have a president who will enforce the law," Tom complains.
"Congress is like Chinese water torture on your principals."
Tom's wife does not want him to run for president but Melrose Larry Green does. After making his point, Larry walks backward to his seat to emphasize his awe of Tancredo.
Maia emails: "I know a boy who has the same awe of Tancredo. He not only copied the same speech style but parroted Tancredo's book in his speeches I just noticed today. He was Mr. Stalker Guy...and a bit awkard at RRLA but it is interesting how dynamic how leaders can be to the point of teens wanting to become their Mini Mes."
Prayer Before Sex
In Rabbi Abner Weiss's book Connecting to God: Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology, he offers a three paragraph prayer for a married couple to say before having sex.
I'm not married, but if I were, and I said a prayer as the holy rabbi suggested, I severely doubt I could go on to complete my mission.
There's a lot of excruciating material in this book, including the rabbi elaborating on how he learned to nurture his wounded child within and how he counseled a woman who'd been taught "that if her mouth ever made contact with her husband's genitals, her prayers would never again be answered."
No wonder Rabbi Weiss didn't last long in stiff upper lip Britain.
I call her Monday afternoon, August 21, 2006.
Luke: "Is M.J. your real name?"
M.J.: "My real name (Melisse [pronounced Muh-LEESE] Shapiro) is hard for people to believe is my real name and they all misspell it and they don't know how to say it. I got tired of explaining my name and got tired of people sending me emails, 'Isn't that cute? You misspelled your own name.' Since nobody could get it right, I thought I'd take a name that was easier to remember.'"
Luke: "I read one of your [essays] where you were concerned about the repercussions to your family for your writing about sex."
M.J.: "Two different things happened at the same time. I was publishing the novel Lip Service and putting a big excerpt on the internet. I was wanting to change my name and this was the thing that decided it. My phone number at the time was listed. I didn't want to unlist my number but I didn't want my phone number to be available when I was writing a novel about phone sex.
"The crazy thing is that all publishers put my real name in the copyright [notice up front] and the whole thing didn't matter anyway.
"M. is for Melisse. J. is for my mom Jacqueline Rose. She always believed I would get published.
"I had a good friend who was a therapist who said that if I did change my name, I should pick something that I could really believe was my name.
"My stuff is slightly erotic but not in a way that freaks people out and not in a way that's disturbing to people. It's more abouts sensuality than about sex.
"I have a book coming out in 2007 that has nothing to do with sex.
"I'm told I write about sex and sensuality better than other people and it tends to be the thing people talk about with my writing."
Luke: "I notice you writing more about food (Sheet Music, In Fidelity) than about sex."
M.J.: "There's a psychological angle to food, that feeding someone is like sex. It's nourishment."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
M.J.: "A writer and a painter. I went to art school from age eight on. I never took a writing class. [She got a B.A. from Syracuse in Fine Arts.] Then I went into advertising and then I took some writing classes. I wasn't very good at painting.
"In the mid eighties, I tried seriously to write screenplays."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
M.J.: "I went to Lenox School in Manhattan [Rose went there for 12 years]. There were 19 kids in my class. I was in the popular crowd.
"My father is in the toy business."
M.J. estimates that her readers are about 70/30 female.
Luke: "Literary vs. genre. Does that distinction mean anything to you?"
M.J.: "Yeah, it's torture. I didn't get published in the beginning because of it. I was too literary to be considered commercial and too commercial to be considered literary. They didn't know what to call me. They decided I was a marketing nightmare. I was too erotic for commercial but not erotic enough to be erotic. I was too mysterious to be literary but not mysterious enough to be mystery.
"I hate labels. I just like good books.
"I come from a marketing background. Before the eighties, this didn't exist. There were good books, trashy books and mysteries. People didn't make this distinction, back when they were publishing 4,000 novels a year. Now they're publishing over 10,000 novels a year. It becomes necessary to have classifications.
"There were always graduate programs in creative writing, but few of them. Then there was this explosion of over 100. When this happened, you got overwhelmed with the snob vs. non-snob factor of literature. If you got an M.F.A., you were literary. If you didn't get an M.F.A., You were commercial.
"The graduate school issue has exacerbated the situation as have the marketing departments of the publishing houses.
"The majority of readers say they have no idea what I'm talking about when I ask them if they're reading literary fiction or commercial fiction.
"Now that I'm writing more thrillers, the thriller world says that I'm one of two literary thriller writers (along with Barry Eisler) while the literary world says I'm still a commercial writer. I say I'm a writer. I won't play the game. It's awful.
"Literary fiction is supposed to be character driven and commercial fiction is plot-driven. Every book I've loved in my life has had a strong plot and strong characters. That's what I taught myself to write. Character is action.
"I like to explore themes. In Flesh Tones, the theme is the power of love. Would you be willing to help someone die? Sheet Music is about the incessant necessity of our culture to take our heroes and strip them down and find every salacious detail about them."
Luke: "Why do you start most of your novels with a highbrow quotation?"
M.J.: "I think of them as landmarks for the readers, to give them a sense of the world they are about to enter."
Luke: "What's the story of you and God?"
M.J.: "I don't have much of a story. God makes more sense to me as a concept if you make it goodness. It's inside of everybody. I was raised Jewish but we weren't a religious family. I haven't gotten involved in religion. I do care about spirituality."
Luke: "Religion [rarely] demarcates your characters."
M.J.: "No. Occasionally. In Flesh Tones, her obsession with Catholicism..."
Luke: "How did you get drawn to psychological thrillers?"
M.J.: "When I was in advertising, I became interested in psychology and I thought about leaving advertising to become a therapist. I started training with a woman in New York after I had started writing novels. After eight months she said to me, 'You're the best diagnostician I've met. But you have such a need to control people and to tell them what to do, you should stay as a novelist because you'll drive any patient crazy.
"Flesh Tones was my first book. Then I wrote Lip Service about a therapist and I fell in love with writing about therapists. I've written five books about therapists. William Faulkner said that the only story worth telling is that of the human heart in conflict."
Luke: "Are most of your friends Jewish?"
M.J.: "I have no idea. No. Not at all. My husband's not Jewish."
"My job has changed [to writing full-time] but I haven't changed. I've become slightly less social. I haven't had a period of my life when I was unhappy except for when someone I loved died or was sick...or the last two years of my marriage (1994-95)."
"I am full-time novelist but I also run a marketing company for authors (authorbuzz.com)."
Luke: "Are most of your friends writers?"
Luke: "When was the last time you felt jealousy of another writer's writing?"
M.J.: "Right now. I'm reading Jane Eyre. In the past couple of months, a bunch of books have come out that publishers are comparing to Jane Eyre. After reading two of them, I decided to reread Jane Eyre."