Jerome Charyn concludes his Isaac Sidel mystery series with the recently published “Winter Warning.” In this interview, we begin with discussing the crime fiction genre and quickly gravitate to the strange resemblance between Charyn’s President Sidel and our current American president. Both men are prone to go it alone in the extreme. Mr. Charyn has some choice words to share on his view of the current political landscape as well as the art that can emerge from troubled times
Henry Chamberlain: Would you share with us your thoughts on the American roots to crime fiction and how it was perhaps inevitable for you to make your own contribution to this genre?
Jerome Charyn: I’ve always felt that all novels are crime novels and I just didn’t realize it. Of course, my brother was a homicide detective. And, once I’d read Dashiell Hammett, after having read Hemingway and Faulkner, I began to feel that Hammett had invented a new kind of language: a poetry of crime. To some degree, Hemingway also wrote crime stories. There’s one called “Fifty Grand.” I was overwhelmed by Hammett and not so much by Chandler. Chandler was recognizable in terms of his literary qualities. But Hammett was a true original. We had never had another writer like him, an actual Pinkerton, who described what it was like in that world, and the craziness of that world really mirrors the craziness of the world we’re living in now.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this series, “Berlin Station.”
No, I haven’t.
You should. It’s excellent. It’s about a CIA station in Berlin. And it has the same kind of madness that you would find in my own fiction. So I was very happy to watch it. I think after the discovery of Hammett, and particularly his novel, “Red Harvest,” I felt that this was a world that I had to enter as fast as I could. Also, I had read Ross McDonald but after a while, his novels became repetitive whereas it was Hammett who had invented a new kind of language for the 20th century. And, it seems to me, he has never received the recognition he deserves.
You have a terrific hook in “Winter Warning” with a renegade president. What some readers may not be aware of is that you had already laid down the groundwork for Sidel’s political rise to power in the two previous Sidel novels, “Citizen Sidel” and “Under the Eye of God.” With the latest novel, “Winter Warning,” you have Sidel as an accidental president. And you find yourself with the added bonus of the current president.
I wrote this before the election of Trump and, like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate that Trump would win.
Is it a bonus or is it more of a distraction in a way?
It’s certainly not a distraction as much as a mirror, a crazy funhouse mirror of what is actually going on in the world today. There are many resemblances between Trump and Sidel. Republicans and Democrats hate them both. They both have to maneuver on their own. They both have a kind of poetry. Isaac is tenuous. And Trump is not. There are certain similarities: the sense of the maverick, the person who goes his own way.
I imagine you followed current political trends while tapping into timeless qualities of the contemporary American presidency.
I was particularly fascinated with the presidency after writing a novel about Lincoln. And I also wrote a novel about Teddy Roosevelt just as he’s about to become an accidental president after McKinley dies. So, it was very much on my mind as to how the office shapes the man and the man shapes the office—because, in some way, the American presidency will never be the same after Trump. Never. It can never go back to what it was.
It is a very sobering thought. The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are being jostled with by Trump. With Obama, we had a good role model. With Trump, I think, we have some sort of throwback.
It’s not simply that he’s a throwback. We never realized before the powers that the president had. With the separation of powers, with the Supreme Court, with the Congress, there seemed to be some limits on his powers. But there are no limits. He does what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. He says what he wants. He retrieves what he says. He denies what he says.
And, also, we’ve never had a president who tweets. I mean, it is a kind of crazy poetry. One has to give him that particular credit. He stays up in the middle of the night and tweets his platform. We’ve never seen this. We don’t know how to deal with it. And, obviously, the Democrats, who should have won the election, are completely bewildered—and didn’t know what to do with him. And we still don’t know what to do with him.
I think there is a strange resemblance between “Winter Warning” and the current situation. As I said, I didn’t write it with Trump in mind.
It’s interesting how the timeline for the Sidel series puts us in 1989, or an alternate 1989, I should say. In some ways, that was a more quiet time but the world is always changing and we are right on the cusp of the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Yes, as the so-called Soviet Union implodes, separates into separate nations; it is the end of the Cold War but it’s the beginning of a different kind of war. To some degree the secret agents that were in place, on both sides, remained in place even after the end of the Soviet Union, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and so on. It’s very difficult to determine what is real and what is not real these days as we have a constant variation on the truth, or a constant multiplication of the truth. The truthful lie. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sidel isn’t like that. He’s a very moral person. But, remember, he’s killed his way to the top. He would never have gotten to where he is without his Glock.
I look at “Winter Warning” as a political thriller and a thinking person’s world-weary journey so, in that sense, Trump seems to me to be a distraction. He’s not in the equation to this novel and yet there is an undeniable connection.
He isn’t in the equation except that he is also a kind of accidental president. And Sidel has to go his own way because he’s so isolated in the White House. I particularly like the two trips he makes – to Prague and to Riker’s Island, where he tries to settle a war between the inmates and the guards. New York is still very much in the narrative frame. And everyone around him seems to want to kill him! (laughs)
There are some presidents who will always lend themselves well to fiction. Lincoln stands out.
Lincoln is quite fascinating. I did a great deal of research on him for my novel. He really grew in the office. He had the prejudices of his own time. The presidency made him great and he made the presidency great. It was a strange evolution. When he talks about the better angels of our nature, there’s real poetry in what he wanted to say. He was our resident poet in the White House. I was hoping that Obama would be the same kind of poet but, in the end, he wasn’t. His speeches didn’t hold up in the same way. We don’t have a Gettysburg Address, which is overwhelming. It’s a kind of tone poem. Everyone was expecting Lincoln to give an hour speech and he spoke for four or five minutes.
Lincoln haunts Isaac Sidel’s White House because, of course, he haunts my own head. We will never see another man like him. I don’t think so. Teddy Roosevelt, in his own way, did a lot of great things but he wasn’t anywhere as poignant as Lincoln.
Of course, I wanted Isaac to be poignant. On the other hand, after completing forty years of work, I didn’t want to have a musical climax or crescendo. It’s just the end. His life can go on. It was the end of a jagged symphony. It was the last twisted movement.
I didn’t want to sum things up. But, on the other hand, I wanted him to end as a sitting president, to go all the way up the American ladder of success. He went from a deputy chief inspector to chief inspector to first deputy commissioner to police commissioner to mayor to vice president, although he never served as vice president. I did think of having him in that job (vice president) but it would have seemed a bit artificial to me. I wanted him to dig right into the dirt.
Without having to give anything away, will the upcoming animated series, “Hard Apple,” based upon the Sidel books, (art by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka) be able to cover all the books?
Well, we will start with “Blue Eyes.” It takes several months to do one episode of animation. I would like it to follow Isaac Sidel’s career. I wouldn’t work on all the books but perhaps six or seven and have Sidel end up all alone in the White House.
Do you think that Trump will make as satisfying a fictional villain as, say, Nixon? Or will people have soured so much on Trump that it will somehow not work?
One never knows. We’re living in such a strange time that I wouldn’t even want to make any kind of prediction. It would be very interesting to write about him just as a phenomenon because that’s all that one can say. He’s a kind of hurricane passing through the entire world. And we don’t know quite what to do. We don’t know how to be prepared for it. And yet, there he is.
If one were to deal with him fictionally, well, you must have seen Saturday Night Live. That’s probably the best fictional representation of him, with Alec Baldwin. I don’t think you can get any better than that. So maybe humor and parody are the way to deal with Trump. Anyway, the relationship between fiction and reality is so tenuous that one can’t anticipate what future writers will do in terms of Trump or how he will be treated.
For example, when we used to think about World War II, we had certain novels like “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity” and then suddenly in the Sixties, we had “Catch-22,” which was a completely different take on the war and the madness of war. It took a long time to re-envision what the nature of war was like.
We would never have thought of war in that particular way. And when Heller tried to do a a sequel, it didn’t really work. The original was too much a product of its own time. In other words, it was the Vietnam War superimposed upon World War II and that’s what made it so interesting.
I think it will take a very long time before we can fictionalize the world as it is unfolding today.
For someone who seems so unintellectual, Trump does play the most devious mind games. There is his strategy of lying where he flips the lie and makes the accuser appear to be the liar—it’s a Russian technique.
He’s very shrewd in his own way. While Hillary was preparing for her victory at the Javits Center, he was out campaigning on the very last night. He was a man who stood there alone. Whether he believed he was going to win or not, we have no way of knowing. It’s not that easy to figure him out. Certainly, I think the tweets are brilliant. And when he uses the term, “Rocket Man,” for example, he does have a kind of poetry.
You were part of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in 1968 protesting against the Vietnam War. Do you think that today’s protests get the same kind of attention?
Well, it wasn’t exactly the way it sounds. What I did was help to educate people. I went door to door in California. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone about how they should feel about the war but just provide them with some history.
That is why I’m a little disappointed with the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam because it was a more complicated matter, with opposition coming from within the government, but those details got glossed over.
Johnson himself knew that we could never win the war. And we lost the war the first time American soldiers appeared on the ground. It was a very sad epic. And when you think of what we were able to do in World War II and how we rebuilt Europe. We brought these countries back into the world. So, it was a very different kind of strategy, the way Americans used power. And now, I haven’t got the slightest idea. For example, I wouldn’t be able to write about the current situation. But I did write a novel about the Vietnam War and felt comfortable doing it.
There are two films about the current situation, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that really capture the craziness in the world. You have these young American soldiers, who haven’t traveled much, and then find themselves in a world where they can’t read the signs or the signals.
What I found most interesting about Vietnam was the lingo that Americans produced. The way that they combined colloquial French and a sort of Broadway slang, to create a whole new language for Vietnam was extraordinary. But the war itself was never winnable, no matter what we did.
All of the characters in “Winter Warning” are colorful and interesting. One that stands out for me is Ariel Moss, the former prime minister of Israel. As a kid, I remember paying attention to the Camp David Peace Accords so I know that Moss is inspired by Menachem Begin.
I didn’t want to use the name. I wanted to invent a Begin-like character and evoke the sadness he went through after his wife died. Then there’s Camp David. And I had fun researching the presidential helicopter service, Marine One. I knew that Camp David and Marine One were going to create the thrust for the novel. I read whatever I could about Marine One and the squad of pilots and how each president leaves his own stamp on Camp David.
Franklin Roosevelt first used Camp David as a retreat. Lincoln had his own summer retreat. He’d go to the Old Soldiers’ Home and then ride back to the White House. After writing about Lincoln embodying that world, it was a little bit easier for me to see Sidel in that same house in Lincoln’s shadow. There’s also the way Truman described the White House as the “little white jail.” All of those takes are interesting.
Could you name any of the French and Broadway combinations of lingo that emerged from Vietnam?
I wrote a novel called, “War Cries Over Avenue C.” For instance, for “city,” they would use the word, “ville.” I would have to go back and look at the novel. Once I’m out of a world, it’s not easy to go back. It is lingo like you see coming out from this war. You have that in “The Hurt Locker,” just think of the terms themselves. “Black Sites.” “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Like I said, I think “Berlin Station” is very powerful. I think some of the best writing is being done in episodic television. The movies now are for twelve-year-olds. But, in terms of HBO, Amazon, and Netflix, we’re getting exciting options. Think back to “The Wire.” Did you ever see that?
I have yet to see it.
You should. “The Wire” is one of the very best. There are others. “Deadwood” is another one. A lot coming out of the BBC, like “The Singing Detective.” That was probably one of the most creative things I’ve seen on television. It’s the writer-producer who creates the show. In that sense, you can have some very good things as well as bad.
As I wrap up, I just want to say that I enjoyed “Winter Warning” very much and I am going back to read the other books. I am currently enjoying “Marilyn The Wild.”
The series, at the beginning, was very different. It evolved as I evolved as a writer. You never think that you’ll finish all twelve. I consider them three quartets. The only reason I was able to complete the Sidel books is because my editor/publisher at Liveright, Bob Weil, spent a long time on each draft. I’d be working on the Sidel books while he was working on Lincoln, or the book on Emily Dickinson. I had a strange surreal time between novels, trying to keep the distinct voices inside my head.
What I like best about the Sidel books is that you can read any title without knowing anything about the others. It will enrich the experience if you do read the others but each stands alone.
In Germany, they have been republishing each of the Sidel books with a photo of me on the cover that coincides with the time I wrote each book. It’s an interesting idea.
The main thing is that you want to keep working as a writer. I feel that we’re living in a time that is hostile to the writer. You have to have an inner resource to sustain yourself. Writing was something I always wanted to do from the time I finished high school. I never thought in terms of failure or success. I just thought in terms of how to sustain myself. I was very lucky, as my generation was the first that welcomed creative writers to teach at the universities. It had never been the case before. And then I stopped teaching and moved to Paris. And soon I began to teach there. I started a film department at the American University in Paris. As with anything, you also need a tremendous amount of luck.
Yes, luck and will power.
Well, you can have all the will power in the world but if you don’t have any kind of luck, then you defeat yourself. You need some kind of acknowledgement. The books I’ve written are there for people to read. Some of them may survive and some of them may not. One never knows.
Also, the graphic novels that I wrote are very important to me. I was the first American novelist in Europe to work with a French artist and then other French writers began doing it too. I grew up with comics, as you already know. We’ve talked about it.
You have so many portals that one can slip into. You have so many outlets for people to discover your work.
Well, if they take the time. The problem is you don’t have as much time to read anymore. Everything moves so quickly, but if you can take the time to read then you can take the time to discover.
When I went to college, reading was the central occupation of what we did as students. You didn’t do anything but read books. You were much better equipped to deal with the outside world having had these dialogues with writers, with having had Plato inside your head.
Today it’s more of a juggling act. A student’s attention is divided between reading and engaging with social media.
It is in social media where people do their discovering. And, going back to Trump, it’s with his tweets where he’s so brilliant. Maybe you need a child-like manner to do it. I don’t really know. But he has a sort of brilliance with his tweets that very few people have. (laughs)
It’s a very different world. And it has evolved very quickly. What place there will be for books, I don’t know. I don’t feel very optimistic about the future of books.
I feel there are a lot of dedicated readers. My daughter, at 21, prefers to read in print. I like both print and digital equally. There’s a healthy community of readers out there.
It’s not a question of a lack of readers. It’s about the lack of venues for these readers. For example, it’s so much more expensive to put out a print book. When I first started writing, if a publisher liked your work, he knew that you’d have a library sale of between 1,500 to 2000 copies so that you could easily sell four or five thousand copies. That would be enough to do a second book and a third book.
But now the library sales have disappeared; the book clubs have disappeared; and the paperback houses have disappeared so the avenues for income are not there. The only avenue you have left is the translation of a book into a film—and that may be more prominent that it was before. Or a television series. One or the other. And that may be what rescues fiction.
As long as I still get pleasure from books, I will write them. There are fewer book reviews, fewer publishing outlets, so it’s hard to reach the reader.
I think people are reading as much as ever but what they’re reading, I don’t know. Also, someone has to make predictions based upon book reviews. If you look back at the last fifty to sixty years, most of those predictions have been wrong.
What seems to be wonderful isn’t so wonderful. I’m not talking about myself. I am talking about how books can come out of obscurity. For example, “Call it Sleep,” by Henry Roth. It was published in the ‘30s and disappeared. Then it was republished in the ‘60s and it was a phenomenal hit. These things do happen but they happen much less frequently.
That’s the same case with “The Great Gatsby.”
That’s absolutely true. Fitzgerald died at a very early age. He was only 44. He was completely forgotten. It was only because of Edmund Wilson’s essays in The New Yorker that he was revived as a writer. In his own lifetime, Fitzgerald had disappeared into the void, his fame all eaten up.
It’s odd which writers are recycled, which writers come back to haunt us, and which writers speak to us in our own generation.
Thank you, Jerome.
Thank you, Henry
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