Mark Helprin Interview by Grover Gardner
Grover Gardner: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Mark Helprin, award-winning and New York Times bestselling author. Mark has written six novels, including the acclaimed Winter’s Tale, and several short- story collections, including Ellis Island and Other Stories. He’s been published in the New Yorker and his articles on politics, aesthetics, and culture have been published in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among others. Mark was educated at Harvard, served in the Israeli Infantry, the Israeli Air Force, and the British Merchant Navy, and was a defense and foreign relations advisor to former presidential candidate Bob Dole. He currently writes for the Claremont Review of Books and his newest novel is In Sunlight and in Shadow, named a Kirkus Reviews New and Notable Title. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of In Sunlight and in Shadow, narrated by Sean Runnette, simultaneously with the hardcover on October 2, 2012. Mark, thank you for joining us today.
Mark Helprin: Thank you for having me.
GG: You talk about writing accidents and how accidental discoveries in your personal life cross over into your writing. Was there a certain experience that led to the storyline of In Sunlight and in Shadow?
MH: Yes, in fact there were two. No one has ever asked me that before, and I’ve had an awful lot of interviews. The first one was when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I don’t remember when—that was more than half a century ago. My parents had a house in East Hampton, and we would spend the summers there. This is a place where a lot of theater people, artists, and lots of psychiatrists spend their summers. There was a young woman there. She was more than ten years, maybe fifteen years, older than me, in her late twenties, and at that time was the belle of Broadway. She was absolutely wonderful and had a magnificent voice. I remember, most of all, her voice. Her voice was incredible—like Catherine’s in the book, and I fell deeply in love with her. But, of course, I was fourteen or fifteen, and she was the belle of Broadway, in her late twenties and didn’t know I existed. That was probably the origin of Catherine. But of course, there are many other contributions and many rivers flow into that big one of this character. The other thing was—and if you read the book, you would know why I’m saying this—a long time ago, maybe when I was in my twenties and lived in Manhattan, I was walking on the East Side and I saw an extremely beautiful, dignified woman who was walking on a deserted block that I was walking on, and she was crying. She was extremely upset; perhaps someone had died. I don’t know, but I never forgot that. I never forgot the way that she looked and those are two accidents that are part of the book. Of course, there are many others.
GG: So just that image of someone, a stranger that you saw, inspired part of the story. You’ve written several books around the world wars, and now again in your new book. Is there something particular that draws you to that era?
MH: Many things really. First of all, when you write about something that you’re separated from by approximately half a century, you have a very good model, which is Tolstoy, who wrote about the Napoleonic Wars approximately half a century after they occurred. He didn’t see them himself. It was just before he came into the world. Yet the echo of it, the feel of it, was known to him perhaps even better than if he had been there. He read it in the behavior and stories and the actual composition of the people who had survived it. When I was a child in the forties, and then into the early fifties, when the forties were elongated because there was very little construction in the cities. They hadn’t shifted from war production to making commercial products, so the commercial products were pretty much the same, styles were the same. It was politically much the same as the Roosevelt years because it was Harry Truman, who was thought of really as just an appendage of Roosevelt, at least until after his presidency. And so I know the forties, and I know them particularly because everyone that I knew was shaped by them—all my family, all my relatives, all the parents of the children I grew up with. The war was it. Also, I lived with two French people for four years. The man had been a poilu in the First World War and he and his wife had been members of the Resistance in the Second World War. In fact, their whole family, even their children, were in the Resistance, acting as couriers, etc. For them, everything was la guerre, la guerre, la guerre, and this is what I grew up on. It also happens to have been the hinge of history, and more or less, the umbilicus of modern times. And when I was a child, I was like a sponge, both emotionally and in terms of sensation, images, and memory. I didn’t understand things, but I was able to see them in great detail, and I never forgot them. So I go back to that period often because we have the distance to treat it in a literary way and also because I really know it better than even the present or even my youth or young manhood.
GG: Esquire magazine wrote, “In his work, Helprin takes the long view, and in that maybe there is a lesson for those who have given up on ambition. If his latest novel is a book out of time, perhaps it holds clues as to where the novel ought to go from here.” Do you have a reaction to that? Do you have ideas about where novel writing ought to go from here and where it can go in our technological culture?
MH: It’s not really my place. I’m not a critic and I don’t deal in theory. As it happened, I went to a number of graduate schools. I shifted over to what would be called political science, diplomacy, strategies of war, but before that, my graduate career was in comparative literature and also in English. So I had a lot of theory and I had a lot of criticism, but that was enough, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I figure that I’m like a baseball player. Maybe when I’m done, I’ll be a sports announcer, but meanwhile I just want to play baseball. But nonetheless, I’m still alive and I do have ideas and I would say this: that in terms of where anything should go, the first thing should be to eschew fashion. For instance, in criticism, there are all kinds of schools—the new American criticism, the new new criticism, the new old criticism, deconstructionism—one after another, they simply replace one another, and none of them has ever been dominant. None of them ever could be dominant. No school of literature can be dominant. What you really should do is concentrate on … well, to take from Keats, truth and beauty, and pay no attention whatsoever to what the current conventions are. Unfortunately, we live in an age when people are very, very coordinated, and they want to keep up. Everyone wants to keep up. No one wants to be left behind. I’m quite happy to be left behind because that gives me the opportunity to concentrate in tranquility on what it is exactly that I’m trying to do. And what I’m trying to do is to make the best approach I can to what I see as the truth and to convey whatever beauty I find, and that I think is what the task of literature always has been and should be in the future.
GG: Who are some of your influences? Who’s influenced you? What other writers?
MH: In my school there was a little girl named Susanna Barolini. Her father was a quite well-known Italian writer—Signore Barolini—and I used to talk to him and I became interested in Italian literature because of that. Then, when I went to Harvard, there was a professor there who Barolini recommended to me named Dante Della Terza. Della Terza was a student of Salimbeni [Salimbeni ?] who was a student of Croce, so he had quite a pedigree, what in Arabic is called an isnad, meaning a chain. He went back to the great Croce. I became interested in Italian literature at that point, and when I was a freshman I took a seminar with him. And then I also began studying Italian. By the time I was a junior, I was reading Dante with him, and to do this properly, because I skipped a couple intermediate courses—it was like Evel Knievel jumping over the Snake River for me to go into a Dante course after only Italian A, was really daring and I was not likely to succeed. So what I did was study as if my life depended upon it, and I actually memorized the first—anyway the Inferno—of The Divine Comedy. Memorized it, the whole thing, and read all the criticism and really knew it. So Dante was a tremendous influence on me. And I was lucky enough to go to a high school where we studied Shakespeare in great, great depth, and then when I was in college I also kept on. I studied with Harry Levin, the great Shakespeare scholar. So it was really what one would call the classics, the things people don’t read any more generally, unless they’re made to do so for school. Those were my influences. Another one, because there are many, was Melville. I had a tutorial with William Alfred, a playwright known for writing Hogan’s Goat. Everyone wanted to be in his tutorial because the young—at that time—Faye Dunaway was the star of the play when it was on Broadway and he became like her father, so she lived at his house a lot. And all of the Harvard undergraduate boys wanted to be his tutee because there she was. Me too. So I applied and I was accepted. What we studied was Melville, and I read all the works of Melville and all the criticism, etc. I deeply love Melville. I mean very much so. I used to have a picture of him pinned next to the desk where I wrote a lot of early books.
GG: Let’s talk a little bit about your career. You went from graduate school and then switched to political science and then the military and then you became a political advisor to former presidential candidate Bob Dole. When did it occur to you to turn again to literature, to writing?
MH: I was Dole’s advisor in defense and foreign relations and I also wrote his acceptance speech and some other speeches. I had been writing speeches for people that I cannot name, because I always said it’s got to be confidential. The only one who ever broke that agreement was Dole, which is why you mention it because otherwise no one would have known.
MH: No one would have known. But I never took a cent for doing any of that. That was simply like licking envelopes—it was my version of licking envelopes. And I was always a full-time writer. Everything else was on the side, and the reason it was on the side is because about 1975 or so—’76—my father and I had a conversation at the bottom of our swimming pool, which had no water in it, luckily. It was the winter. We went down there because we were sheltered from the wind and it was white, so the sun was reflecting and it warmed us because it was about ten degrees. And this was more than thirty-five years ago. He had been in the film business, and he started very, very early—at the turn of the century. He said, “Since I was a child, the first thing I saw was … I went to a nickelodeon and I saw a picture of cards flipping.” You’d put a nickel in and the cards flipped, and it showed an illusion of a train moving down a track. And he said, “I was so struck by that because it was the first moving image I had ever seen. And then the next thing that came was film.” The jerky, silent type of film, ill-timed. He said, “And that was extraordinary. Then they timed it correctly so that the motion was smooth. Then they added sound. Then they added color, then cinemascope, then television, and now computers.” This was ’75. He didn’t know about Moore’s Law or anything, but he said, “Technological advance of these things has enabled more and more information to be put on this smaller and smaller part. It’s getting denser and denser and denser.” He looked at me and said, “And therefore, the image is going to win the war,” or the contest, “with the word.” He said, “You have chosen to be a writer. That’s your career.” He said, “I give you twenty-five years. That’s it. Then you’ll be competing against a juggernaut and the word will take a second position.” And I think he was right, but nonetheless, I decided early on that I would do that if I could have a twenty-five or thirty-year run because then I would be old enough to retire. And I’m not retired yet, but things don’t look so great for the written word.
GG: I was going to say the opposite. I was going to say that at some point, people weary of technology. Perhaps I’m wrong and there seems to be a bit of a resurgence in reading, literature, but maybe not enough. I don’t know. What do you think?
MH: I think not because I think that if you analyze the variety, which is decreasing in terms of the titles that are produced and the quality of them and the type. For instance, I flew home from the West Coast recently and I sat next to someone who had a Kindle or something like that, and he would read a few pages, then he would switch to his e-mail, then he would look at pictures.
MH: Then he’d go back and read a few pages. And this was through the whole flight, whereas what I did, I would have a newspaper or book and just read the whole thing, and take hours. It’s somewhat wearying, but I didn’t jump back to the image. This guy could not do without the image.
MH: The image is powerful. I find myself, if I’m in a doctor’s office or an airport, I can’t help my head from turning to look at a television, even if there’s some junk on it. It’s just that the power of the image is fantastic.
GG: Speaking of the West Coast, your novel Winter’s Tale has been optioned for film.
MH: Yeah, it appears as if it’s going ahead. I mean, they have a studio in Yonkers, where they’re building sets. Their set designers are swarming over Ellis Island. They have production offices. They’ve hired. They’ve cast. This far, the cast is Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Will Smith, Russell Crowe, Eva Marie Saint, and William Hurt. They’ve even cast minor parts and extras at this point. So, it’s supposed to start shooting October 29.
GG: How much involvement have you had in the process?
MH: Zero. They buy the rights and then that’s it. You have no involvement whatsoever. Think about it. A film has a thousand people working on it and huge amounts of money—sometimes hundreds of millions, and big bureaucracies. So it’s a business juggernaut. They’ve got to do it the way they want to do it, and that’s what they do. And I have absolutely nothing to do with it, except maybe sell some books when it comes out.
GG: Can you talk about what might be coming up?
MH: I finished a book before this book came out. What I do is I always try to finish the first draft at least before I have to go into the maelstrom of publicity because that takes months, literally, and it’s very unsettling. I hate to travel, I don’t like public speaking, and it disrupts everything so I like to get something, as they say in Hollywood, in the can—although that might have a double meaning there if it’s not so great.
MH: And get that done. And so I did. I finished a book. And after all this settles down, then I will begin to do the many, many, many drafts and rewrites I do before I give it to the publisher.
GG: Would you rather not talk about exactly what it is, or can you give us some hint?
MH: I never do. It’s a novel, it’s not as long as this one, and it takes place actually in the twenties and early thirties. So I’m going backwards in that sense. It has a very happy ending.
GG: Thank you so much for joining us today and talking to us.
MH: Thanks very much.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Mark Helprin. You can find In Sunlight and in Shadow and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in October 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
In Sunlight and in Shadow
Mark Helprin’s enchanting and sweeping novel asks a simple question: can love and honor conquer all?
New York in 1947 glows with postwar energy. Harry Copeland, an elite paratrooper who fought behind enemy lines in Europe, returns home to run the family business. In a single, magical encounter on the Staten Island ferry, the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale falls for him instantly but too late to prevent her engagement to a much older man. Harry and Catherine pursue one another in a romance played out in postwar America’s Broadway theaters, Long Island mansions, the offices of financiers, and the haunts of gangsters. Catherine’s choice of Harry over her longtime fiancé endangers Harry’s livelihood—and eventually threatens his life.
Entrancing in its lyricism, In Sunlight and in Shadow so powerfully draws you into New York at the dawn of the modern age that, as in a vivid dream, you will not want to leave.