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Interview: Jerome Charyn and the Art of Fiction in Prose and in Comics

Portrait of Jerome Charyn by Henry Chamberlain

Much is brewing for novelist Jerome Charyn and I imagine that’s always been the case. Currently, he has a new novel out, “Jerzy,” which tackles the controversial life of writer Jerzy Kosinski. The development of “Hard Apple,” an animated series based on Charyn’s Isaac Sidel crime novels, is on a fast-track. “Winter Warning,” perhaps the last installment of the Sidel novels comes out this October. And “Family Man,” a deluxe re-issue of Charyn’s collaboration with cartoonist Joe Staton will be available later this year, with a Kickstarter campaign in support of the IT’S ALIVE Press print run closing on May 21st.

For a writer steeped in the works of great literature, it is comic books and movies that influence his work as much as anything else. In 1986, “The Magician’s Wife,” a graphic novel written by Jerome Charyn and illustrated by François Boucq, published by Casterman, won for Best Album at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. That is tantamount to winning an Academy Award for the comics industry. Mr. Charyn’s contribution, and subsequent collaborations, have significantly added to the developing art form that is the comics medium, specifically graphic novels.

We begin our conversation talking about character. In this case, the celebrated and controversial writer Jerzy Kosinski. At the end is a link to the podcast:

Jerzy Kosinski with David Letterman, 1984.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin with your recent novel, “Jerzy.” My thinking is that the life of Jerzy Kosinski fits in well with your work as you’re drawn to unusual characters seeking salvation.

JEROME CHARYN: When you look back at it historically, it almost seems like he didn’t exist. He seems like a made-up person. He led so many fictional lives. To me, it was very sad because the first two books he wrote, “The Painted Bird,” and his second novel, “Steps,” which is just as unusual, were works of genius. But, when he put on the mask of Jerzy Kosinski, in the other books, they’re no longer anywhere as interesting. They don’t have the same sad, hard touch. They’re made-up, invented. They’re not authentic.

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

“Steps” talks about his life after the war and how he lived. We have such a narrow glimpse into what it must have been like to live in a communist country after the war. And this is, you know, almost like Kafka. I mean, the world he describes in “Steps” is extraordinary. I found him to be a strange man. Very hard to deal with. But the early work was incredible.

You share a certain sensibility with Kosinski: a connection to Russia.

Yes, my mother was Russian. And I love the literature. There’s nothing like it. This is not to take anything away from American writers but when you go back to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, it’s almost like being caught in a landscape of illusions.

Lowes Paradise Theatre in the Bronx. “It was comics and movies. That was my education.”

Would you share with us your special connection to comics. You grew up in the Bronx with comics.

Yes, that’s why it’s not so strange to be involved in the whole aura of comic books. I’m about to embark upon an animated series based on my Isaac Sidel crime novels. People talk about the special role of storyboard artists. Well, I’m a storyboard artist in the sense that I can see the storyboard in my head. I grew up with comics. I learned how to read with comics.

As you wrote in one of your articles, I’m one of the first people to make the crossover from fiction to comics. I started out as an artist but I had no talent at all. So, I needed artists to work with. And I was lucky to find some of the very best artists while I was living in France. Had I not been living in France, it probably would never have happened.

A SUIVRE, a Franco-Belgian comics magazine published from February 1978 to December 1997 by the Casterman.

Your work in comics began with your connection to the comics magazine, A SUIVRE.

Yes, the title means to be continued. It was an extraordinary magazine. It lost its circulation, which can happen as you move from one generation of readers to the next. The magazine reviewed one of my novels. I was sent a copy of the issue with the review and I was exposed to some of the most extraordinary art: Tardi, Bilal, and José Muñoz, a master of black & white. I wrote a letter to the editor, Jean-Paul Mougin, a wonderful editor. I wrote to him about my desire to work with an artist. He found for me François Boucq, and we were able to collaborate on several graphic novels, including “The Magician’s Wife.”

When you were entering into this collaboration, were you at all thinking that you were about to a make your mark on this exciting and emerging comics art form or were you thinking more of it as an interesting experiment?

I would say it was both. To declare that I was making my mark would have been thinking too far ahead. I adored the work Boucq did. I remember working in television for the first time twenty-five years ago. And I recall thinking that I would love hearing the lines that I wrote for the pilot, adapted from one of my novels. And I didn’t love it at all. But when I saw the art that François Boucq did, I almost cried. He took a story that I wrote and interpreted it in his own way. The results felt totally personal. On television, the words each actor and actress spoke had no relation to me whatsoever. I was startled. I’d seen the rushes. I thought I would really enjoy it. It was dead to me.

Do you recall what televsion show that was?

Yes. It was an adaptation of “The Good Policeman.”

I wanted to build a little more on what you’ve said about comics, that it comes in and out of reality. And you’ve talked about how one can linger upon a panel. The framework of comics is unique, is magical.

Yes, it is magical. It has its own framework, like a house. It’s architecture. The panels are pieces of architecture. Also, you can move them around and shift the logic. You can possibly do that in a novel but it’s going to be difficult for the reader. You see how I do that in “Jerzy.” I shift the narrative, in a way. It seems to me, going back to Krazy Kat, you move from panel to panel and you’re in a different landscape. That, to me, was very exciting. In other words, there were no rules. You could tell the story in any way you wanted.

“Once Upon a Droshky” by Jerome Charyn. Cover art by Edward Sorel.

I wanted to chat with you about your first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” published in 1964. It has beautiful cover art by Edward Sorel.

I really love that cover. I’m disappointed that I never worked with him again. I chose one of my friends to do the cover for my next book. That was a mistake since you shouldn’t mix friendship with art.

Is there anything you can share with us about Edward Sorel–did you guys socialize?

I think I did meet him. I do adore the cover. I don’t know why he was chosen. He was a young man at the time. It is simply a wonderful cover as it fits the book perfectly. I was delighted to learn that you had just interviewed him. Not only that, we both have the same publisher, Liveright.

You guys should have coffee some time.

I hope so. I would love to meet him. I always wanted to be a writer and, when you see your first book, it doesn’t seem real. I’m holding it in my hand right now and it still doesn’t seem real!

You seem to have anticipated my next question. I wonder if you could give us a window into that time, at the height of the modern era. Sorel could create the Great American Illustration and you could create the Great American Novel.

“Great American Novel,” no, but it was a time when serious literature thrived. Hemingway was still alive. I believe, Faulkner was still alive. Literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something to the culture. In other words, when I went to Columbia College, we spent four years just reading books. So, one did not talk about the possibility of whether or not you might become a doctor or a lawyer. That was incidental to the idea of learning a way of life. And that has remained with me. The greatest gift I ever had was spending four years studying books. We had a colloquium of ten students and two professors. In the colloquium there was a student who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, another student who became a professor of philosophy at Harvard, etc. These were all very serious guys with a murderous intellect. And literature was a kind of religion. It’s difficult for me to speak about the current generation. But I know that, at that time, literature was at the center of the culture. It meant something.

It’s always been a relatively small group of serious readers. Literature used to mean more to the general public–we’ve lost that.

We’ve lost a lot. There are fewer book reviews and fewer bookshops. It’s the same thing that’s happened to the movies. They’re just remakes of superhero flicks and a few small films. The small has disappeared. It’s the mega-book. It’s the mega-bomb, you know. And that’s not the kind of art that I want to do.

There’s something that Marilyn Monroe said toward the end of her career, and it’s my credo. She said, “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” I feel the same way. I love Marilyn Monroe but she had no idea how to live her life. When she moved back to L.A., she didn’t know how to furnish her house. All she had was a bed and a lamp. It’s kind of sad but also poetic at the same time.

You have an amazing formal education. But, first, you had comic books and the movies. Do those two forces strongly influence your work, the magical realism that keeps popping up?

Yes. Remember, when you grow up with films, you have a visual sophistication that you don’t have in real life. I came from a very poor family. I remember going out with a girlfriend of mine. She came from a very aristocratic background. She was chastising me for not holding my knife the correct way. I seldom get angry. But I really exploded. I said that I lived all my life being told what to do and I didn’t want to be told how to eat. I didn’t have her table manners. I didn’t have her customs. I grew up like a kind of wolf.

But, on the other hand, I had this visual sophistication from a very early age. Joyce Carol Oates explained it to me. I thought that maybe I’d just seen so many movies. She said that maybe my brain was wired in a special way. In other words, I can distinctly remember the back of an actor’s head I had seen in a film thirty years ago. I don’t have to see the front of his face. That crazy visualization was imprinted in my brain.

There were no books in the house. It was comics and movies. That was my education. School didn’t give you much, just little things like how to spell.

“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” by Jerome Charyn

What can you tell us about your debut novel. What led you to choose the subject behind “Once Upon a Droshky”?

My grandparents came from the Lower East Side. You have to remember, I’d never traveled. I’d never been anywhere. Even as a kid, I very rarely went into Manhattan. Even though I was sophisticated in terms of what I read, I could not, at that point, take what I read and turn it into what I wanted to write. I had to find a theme, or a group of characters that made sense to me. I remember walking around the streets where my grandparent lived on the Lower East Side. And I can still recall the Yiddish theaters—the marquees and the actors. So, in my first novel, I picked a Yiddish actor who is unemployed. And I was able to move into that world and find his voice. Voice is critical. Writing is music. There’s nothing else but the music.

I certainly enjoyed reading your first novel. I would encourage everyone to grab an existing copy while you still can. It would definitely make sense for this book to come back in a new edition.

That’s when you get into issues of commerce. At some point, things will either work out or not. I’m grateful that I was able to do it. Someone will ask me about how I wrote that novel. Well, I found the music for it. And, for a long time, while I was living in Europe, I’d lost the music. I really wasn’t able to write. I was only able to write about New York. I was able to write stories about New York but I wasn’t able to be more adventurous. Language is a gift that can disappear as quickly as it can reappear. It’s almost magical. You write in a dream. It’s really a dream state. I don’t know how artists draw. I can only tell you how I write. You’re writing in a dream.

Your body of work is breathtaking. When someone goes over the many titles and considers the quality of the work, it’s stunning. A recent example is “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.” I had not read that much of Dickinson prior to reading your book. But I have now. And your novel is quite beautiful.

Thank you. I like that book a lot. I was chastised for writing in a woman’s voice. I’d rediscovered Emily Dickinson rather late. I’d never read her letters before and they are just as extraordinary as her poems. I knew I wasn’t finished with her. So, I started “A Loaded Gun.” The wondrous fact is that she never wanted to publish her work. She was like Kafka in a way. She had a secret self that was very tough. People don’t recognize her toughness. And this is what I wanted to write about.

“Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories” by Jerome Charyn

I wanted to ask you about your story collection, “Bitter Bronx.” I would recommend that as a wonderful point of entry. I love the fable-like quality to the stories. They remind me, in a way, of J.D. Salinger.

I’m not a great admirer of “Catcher in the Rye.” But I love “The Nine Stories.” I read them in high school. There are three or four of those stories that can make you cry with sadness and delight. The important thing is a book that you can reread and still feel the same affection: Ernest Hemingway’s early stories, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel. The thing about “Bitter Bronx” is that I had to relearn the craft. My editor in France suggested that I write a collection of stories about the Bronx, and like Yankee Doodle, that became my quest.

I want to call attention to the four recent graphic novel re-issues, translated in English, by Dover Publications. Readers can follow up on my previous reviews for that. I also want to call attention to FAMILY MAN, a crime noir graphic novel that will receive a deluxe reprint from IT’S ALIVE Press led by Drew Ford.

We currently have a Kickstarter campaign for “Family Man.” Drew Ford has not received the recognition that he deserves. He is a shrewd editor and gets exactly what he’s looking for from a project.

Page from FAMILY MAN by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton

Tell us about “Family Man.”

Andy Helfer was the editor at DC Comics. I was interested in writing a Batman story but they had other ideas.

I’ll bet you could get your Batman story today.

Yes, but I’m no longer interested. Jeanette Kahn, president of DC Comics, was interested in one of my novels for a comics adaptation. At the time, in the very small printed format for “Family Man” in three stingy booklets, I didn’t like the art. However, when I finally saw the original art, I loved it.

The deluxe edition is faithful to all the duotone details of the original work.

Exactly.

My quirkiest question for you: You have these leather masks that all the trainees wear in “Billy Budd, KGB.” Where did you get those masks?

They just came from my head!

Well, they’re very arresting visuals!

Trump cartoon by François Boucq for Le Monde.

The thing is that Boucq is an extraordinary artist. When he focuses in on a subject, he gets extraordinary results. These days, he also does political cartoons for Le Monde. For “Billy Budd, KGB,” Boucq made certain changes in the story. Mine was more of a straightforward spy story. Boucq added in the Native American spiritual quality.

That reminds me of your Isaac Sidel stories. What can you tell us about the “Hard Apple” animated series based on your crime series?

We hope to get eight half hour narratives based on the first book, “Blue Eyes.” Then continue from book to book. I’ve done what they call the bible which is a summary of the characters. And soon I will be working on the pilot. I am excited about it. I didn’t realize how lyrical one could be in that animated format. The original idea, six or seven years ago, was to do a live action series. When we moved from that to animation, that’s really my country.

Then you have “Winter Warning” coming out.

Yes, the twelfth book in the series. It may be the last but at least we’ve completed the series. As you know, the main character ends up becoming president of the United States. He’s a Trump-like character. In his case, he’s a Trump of the left, rather than of the right.

Do you think that Donald Trump would make an interesting character to write about or are the people working for him more interesting?

I really don’t know. He’s a phenomenon we never thought would have happened, coming out of reality television. The country has changed so much that now a television star can become president and there will probably be other television star presidents. Say what you will about him, but he was able to speak to the American people in a way that the other candidate could not, except maybe Bernie Sanders.

I hope we may see a re-issue of “Panna Maria.”

Yes, everything in its time. If you shove to hard, you lose everything. You have to see it within its own sequence. If “Family Man” works, then everything else will work.

Things need time to breathe.

Yes. Right now, I’m working on a sequel to “Little Tulip.” I have a wonderful Belgian editor. And we’re at work on a graphic novel of Charlemagne.

It’s great how you rekindled your relationship with François Boucq.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

That was through this editor. François Boucq had moved from Casterman to Le Lombard. And that editor, at Le Lombard, said that he grew up on “Billy Budd, KGB” and wanted us to work together again. Let’s say it was my stupidity that had led to our falling out. It was a pity since we could have done wonderful work all this time.

And I look forward to the “Hard Apple” animated series. That’s being put together by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, who created art for the animated movie “Waltz With Bashir.” They’re twins. One does covers for The New Yorker. It’s going to be a wonderful animated series. It’s a chance to do something that’s never been done before.

It would be great to pick up the thread again sometime, especially leading up to the next, perhaps last, Isaac Sidel book.

As you can see the discussion is endless: the relationship between comics and novels, the whole notion of graphic art, the notion of narrative in every form, we could be talking for days.

Your book, “Movieland,” there’s an hour of conversation right there.

Exactly. You should pick up a copy of “Metropolis,” my book on New York, when you get a chance.

I will.

I really appreciate your interest. And we’ll talk again.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

“Winter Warning,” Book 12 in the Isaac Sidel crime novel series.

Click the link below to listen to the podcast interview right here.

Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here. And be sure to check out the FAMILY MAN graphic novel Kickstarter campaign, running thru May 21st, right here.

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Filed under Comics, Crime Fiction, Donald Trump, Fiction, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, New York City