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  • Martin Stephen

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Martin Stephen is High Master of St Paul's School, London, and ex-High Master of The Manchester Grammar School. Martin is the author of 16 academic titles and four highly-acclaimed Henry Gresham crime thrillers.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Rebel Heart?

    Martin Stephen: Madonna, Princess Diana and David Bowie. I was fascinated by the idea of celebrity. The Earl of Essex was very like a cross between the three names above and Boris Johnson. He was a hugely charismatic, popular figure with a cult following, but also a deeply flawed personality who carried within him the source of his own downfall. I wanted to know why such a man was so powerful, and why someone so powerful could end up on the block.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    MS: I do all the research and the planning between 11.00pm and 3.00am. The actual writing is crammed in to six weeks -- a week at Christmas, a week at Easter, and four weeks in the summer, when I work 12 or 12 hour days and insist of 5,000 words a day.

    MT: How much research do you have to do for such a historic novel? And how do you make sure your research doesn't bog down the novel's narrative?

    MS: Good question. My first degree was in English and History, and I suppose you could say that with the research for my teaching, and the fact that I always chose by preference to teach Shakespeare, Donne and other writers from the period of the novels I've been researching the background for 40 years. There was also a massive amount of reading for the first novel, The Desperate Remedy, but it is cumulative. I now know how a person in 1600 cleaned their teeth, and how they cleaned the bit at the other end. I found out for the first novel how they dressed, what they ate, when they went to bed and when they got up. You've only got to acquire this knowledge once. And the key thing is having spent hours and years acquiring the actual historical knowledge of what happened and the social background you desperately want to show off to the reader how much you know. Well, these books are crime thrillers which just happen to be set 400 years ago, not history text books! The worst one was The Galleons' Grave, about the Spanish Armada. The first draft virtually charted every shot fired by every ship. Then I realised that not only did the reader not want or need to know all this guff, but the characters in the book wouldn't have known it either. Indeed, the fear and tension comes so often from how little the actual protagonists know. I chucked away over 10,000 words, and it's far more exciting book as a result.

    MT: Do you think novels can help us understand history better?

    MS: Definitely. I'm not kidding in these four novels. I describe as a historian with a PhD exactly how I think four major events in history -- the Gunpowder Plot, the writing of Shakespeare's plays, the Spanish Armada and the Essex rebellion--happened. It's essential for me that I stick exactly to the known historical facts, but the freedom to write fiction releases you into a fascinating world where you can also tell a version of the truth.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MS: I learnt to write completing a horrendously complex PhD thesis between 10.00pm and 3.00am. I can only use a keyboard -- how I'd love to a romantic and say I wrote all my books with a dog-eared pencil from the newsagent into a cheap exercise book! I write straight off, and then when I've got the end go in for very, stringent editing.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    MS: Wish I was writing. And I've got this day job as High Master of St Paul's School, which unfortunately is also an evening, night and weekend job. I actually love sailing and scuba diving. Most of all (cue for violins) I like being with my family.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    MS: I'd rather die than have a vision of an 'ideal' reader! The ideal reader is the person who likes the books, and I don't care if they're 5 or 50. Mind you, The Sun newspaper once threatened to do an expose on me. They said that my books used 'offensive language', and that as a result of this and my being a Headmaster/role model or young people I was corrupting the young. I was praying they'd run the story, because it would have done wonders for sales, but they chickened out.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    MS: I'm doing a proposal for the fifth Henry Gresham novel, and working on a new series of crime thrillers based on the 1930's. It's a fascinating time, full of fear and foreboding and threat, and a time of huge contrasts, with class differences in the UK probably their most marked ever.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    MS: Authors would include Shakespeare (sorry!), Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremaine and Margaret Atwood. Books? Bleak House, Decline and Fall and Restoration.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    MS: I think it's a bit like acting. It's not necessarily the best who succeed, but it's always the most determined. After 15 academic books and four novels I'm don't feel sufficient authority to tell anyone how to do it. I certainly wouldn't like to try and get fiction published without an agent, and I'm sure people wouldn't be reading this article were it not for the remarkable Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates who must have seen something salvageable in what with hindsight I now see was a truly dire and awful Proposal for a novel.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    MS: Please buy the books -- and thank you to all those who have done so and made the fourth one possible!

  • Christopher Robbins

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Christopher Robbins is the author of five non-fiction books, including the award-winning The Empress of Ireland, which was acclaimed by Simon Callow as "magnificent" and William Boyd as "a complete delight", and was a Book of the Year in The Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Express, Observer and Sunday Times. He became intrigued by Kazakhstan sitting on an aeroplane next to an American from Arkansas on his way there to collect an Internet bride.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for In Search of Kazakhstan?

    Christopher Robbins:The subjects of my books always come to me obliquely, from stage left – so to speak - disguised as something else. In this case it was my near total ignorance of Kazakhstan that was the hook. I sat beside a man from Arkansas on a flight to Moscow who was on his way to marry an Internet bride. It struck me that the only things I knew about the place were that it has a lot of steppe, nomads, and was on the Silk Route… and that was it! As my travelling companion left for his connecting flight, he said, "Apples are from Kazakhstan!" The phrase stuck with me… and somehow captured my imagination. And I ended up writing a book about the place.

    The focus was the question - How did a country the size of Western Europe disappear out of sight and mind of the West for 150 years? And I discovered the quick answer is that the Tsars closed it to European travellers in the 19th century, as they ruthlessly pushed their empire south, and then the Soviets sealed it tight, so they could send up their sputniks, test their nuclear weapons, and built their Gulag. So Kazakhstan had a whole secret, untold history, which was fascinating. Pay dirt for a writer.

    MT: Aren't the other four 'stans (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) as interesting!?

    CR: Kazakhstan always seemed to get lumped in with all those confusing and troublesome Stans south of its border. Even the Economist and New York Times take this view – not to mention the Foreign Office and State Department. It’s considered just another Central Asian country. But it isn’t any more – it’s unique and in a league of its own. I wanted to flag that – draw attention to its difference and importance. All those other Stans are run by third-rate despots ruthlessly controlling old rust-bucket Soviet command systems that are falling apart.

    Kazakhstan is run by a highly-intelligent and pragmatic president who has brought the country into the 21st century, and attracted the sort of western investment necessary to exploit its vast oil and mineral reserves. President Nazarbayev enjoys excellent relations with Russia, China, the dodgy southern Stans – and the United States and Iran, for heaven’s sake! He is in charge of an enormously rich, moderate Muslim country that actively promotes religious tolerance. You’d think we’d cosy up to him a little. By our standards Nazarbayev’s style is paternalistic and authoritarian, but he’s moving the country in the right direction. As they have only had a democracy for less than 20 years – and we have had one for a thousand – they are doing rather well. The Stans to the south are decidedly not moving in the right direction!

    MT: How long did it take you to write In Search of Kazakhstan?

    CR: Too long! So much of the story of Kazakhstan had been suppressed that it took ages to research the background. And I wanted to be there in every season, and travel all over the place – so that took time and many trips. I followed in the footsteps of the Russian geneticist who discovered it as the birthplace of the apple – a brilliant, innocent man destroyed by Stalin! And of Leon Trotsky, sent into exile to Almaty – and who spent a very pleasant year shooting ducks on the Ili River and writing. And Solzhenitsyn, who served eight hard years in the Gulag which gave him the material for his novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And Dostoyevsky, who was exiled to a fort in the north, and suffered through a tortured love affair. I wanted to weave these moving stories into my own narrative, while keeping the book light and entertaining. I adored the travel, but it was hell to write!

    MT: How do you write Chris? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    CR: I use a Mont Blanc fountain pen. A surprising number of writers, I have discovered, still do this - which is, I suppose, what you might expect from a dinosaur profession. The reason, I think, is that a fountain pen allows a writer to doodle in the margins and draw funny faces when the muse is far, far away. I then type my appalling scrawl – which I am often unable to read myself so that posterity is robbed of endless beautiful and original phrases – into a computer. And edit, edit, edit.

    MT: What do you do when not writing?

    CR: Read.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader?

    CR: A young woman with deep blue eyes who understands the profound nature of my genius. I know she’s out there somewhere.

    Actually, I’m very happy that readers come in all shapes and sizes and remain in the unknown out there". It is one of the small pleasure of writing – or perhaps the great pleasure of writing – that readers live with your book not just for a hour or so, but days or weeks. You become a small part of their life. It’s a very rewarding thought. That you can privately make someone laugh or move them. It’s a unique contract, this deal between writer and reader… very delicate, very intimate.

    Of course, people might grow to hate an author in the course of reading a book. But I try not to think about them.

    MT: What are you working on now Chris?

    CR: I am adapting my last book, The Empress of Ireland, into a play. This will either take the world by storm next year, or be put on in the back room of a pub by a group of mates. I had several offers to buy the rights for a film but have so far resisted. Film kills books. It takes away their souls. And so far the money offered for Empress has not been enough to overcome my high principles. They made a film of my book, Air America, and it was one of the stupidest movies ever! A tragic story of the secret war in Laos, albeit with the derring-do of American mercenary pilots, was turned into a daft comedy with Mel Gibson. The greatest humiliation is to be congratulated on it by strange people who genuinely seemed to enjoy it.

    The next book is on Russia – or rather three extraordinary journeys I took there with three extraordinary men. The first journey was down the Volga with a charming and witty KGB man who was kicked out of Britain as a spy in the ‘sixties, and then ran the anti-British desk in Moscow. The second is with the onetime head of the Chechen mafia, who I travelled with in very hairy circumstances in Chechnya and Dagestan. He was rather noble and I liked him. And the third is a great Russian visionary I travelled with in the frozen north of Russia to see a rocket launched that he had bought to say Happy Birthday America. The book will be funny and moving. A corker!

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    CR: Call me old-fashioned, but Dickens. I first devoured him from the age of nine. I read the books not as classics, but with the muddy view that they were written by a boy about two years older than me who understood everything. And Balzac – his Lost Illusions says it all about writerly ambition and the dangers thereof. And I like the Russians, particularly Turgenev. Saul Bellow is my favourite American – The Adventures of Augie March is an extraordinary book that made me want to be American and Jewish and from Chicago when I first read it as a young man. Cormac McCarthy is a great talent, but so very gloomy! Makes you want to read Celine to cheer up. I need a long breather after a McCarthy. When I’m depressed I read P.G. Wodehouse, whose invented world becomes more and more appealing as the shadows lengthen over the real world. When I’m really depressed I watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. Bugs is unusual for an American in that he is a cynic, although of course he is a rabbit. Anyone who repeats the inaccurate cliché that Americans don’t have a sense of irony have clearly never been exposed to Bugs’ oeuvre.

    MT: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

    CR: Committed writers have my sympathy. Particularly young writers as yet unpublished. I think of the endless work and slog that goes into even the lousiest book and am overcome with compassion. As for aspiring writers – I would advise them to aspire to some other profession before it’s too late, preferably something well paid with long holidays.

  • John Ray

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    John Ray is Sir Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge; he has worked in the British Museum. He is an experienced lecturer and is the author of Reflections of Osiris which David Starkey called "a triumph" and Tom Holland "the best introduction to ancient Egypt I’ve read" (Daily Telegraph).

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Rosetta Stone?

    John Ray: I first saw the stone as a schoolboy, and was fascinated by it. Languages intrigued me, particularly mysterious ones, and Egyptian hieroglyphs are the biggest mystery of all.

    MT: Some readers may not know what Stone actually is -- tell us John.

    JR: It's in the British Museum, and it has an inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs, another script called demotic, which was used for everyday purposes, and finally Greek. It was discovered by Napoleon's soldiers when they invaded Egypt. The Greek text could be read, and this gave the first clues as to how the hieroglyphs could be understood. Nobody since the Roman empire was able to read this script until 1822, when a Frenchman named Champollion cracked the puzzle.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book?

    JR: It took about 3 months, but it had been festering in the back of my mind for years. I always go through a long period of thinking I'll never be able to do the thing, then it tends to come quicker than I can write it down!

    MT: Is Egyptology a real science or is it still lots of mumbo-jumbo!?

    JR: Egyptology is a real science, with professors and museum curators and learned societies to see that things are done as they should (at least that's the theory). But it also has a big lunatic fringe, with people like pyramidiots and others who reckon the Rosetta Stone was really written in a Slavonic language, or that the sphinx was built by aliens. It's mostly harmless, but they can get in the way of real understanding at times.

    MT: How do you write John? Longhand or directly onto a > computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    JR: I try to write directly on to the screen, but at the end of a chapter or section print the thing off and go through it in longhand. That way mistakes or awkward bits are much clearer to spot.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing The Rosetta Stone and how did you overcome them?

    JR: The story of the decipherment was straightforward, though I hope it fascinates. But once that was done, I wanted to widen things out - what is the history of writing, for example, and what did the ancient Egyptians have to tell us when hieroglyphs could finally be read? Then what would happen if we started giving works of art back to the countries they came from? Big themes, which needed a bit of thought.

    If things aren't writing themselves I try to set a short word limit for each day - maybe as low as 100. If you write more than the 100 words, you can feel good about yourself at the end of the day - but the next day you still have to write the next 100. That way you can sometimes fool yourself into thinking you're doing things ahead of schedule.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    JR: I teach students in Cambridge - and exams are fast coming up. Then the golden retriever takes me for walks. He is mentioned at the end of the book, by the way.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    JR: From time to time I've lectured on Nile cruises, and perhaps it's the passengers I have in mind - people with intelligence and humour, but who may have no knowledge of ancient Egypt as such. But they want to know what draws people to it - and I try to address that.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    JR: I recently published an edition of two letters written in ancient Egyptian. They are addressed to an important man, and they are asking for oracles from the local god. They were found at a site near the border of Egypt and the Sudan, and they were still rolled up and sealed. The man they were sent to never opened them, and that meant I was the first person - after the scribe who wrote them - ever to read what they said. They date from around the time of Cleopatra, and they are quite amazing and human.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    JR: George Orwell is an ideal. It's the way he seems to have no style, but is talking straight to you. It's the utter clarity, which is, of course, very difficult to bring off. Then the Patrick O'Brian series, if you like sea stories. And William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain, which is a modern masterpiece, both funny and intensely sad.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    JR: The 100-words trick seems to work for me. And don't be afraid to simplify - something I often find I need to do.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    JR: I loved writing The Rosetta Stone, and its predecessor, Reflections of Osiris. If some of that comes over, then it was worth it.

  • John Marks

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    John Marks is a former 60 Minutes producer. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Fangland?

    John Marks: Once, while at work at 60 Minutes, and having a really bad day, I began to think about how one would write a novel about such a place. The television business is already so surreal and bizarre that straightforward satire seemed beside the point. How can you satirize a thing that satirizes itself unintentionally every day? At the time, I was rereading the novel Dracula for the umpteenth time, and I had a sudden, gripping notion, as I pondered these questions about the novel, that the story in the book, if transposed to the modern world and placed in the setting of American broadcast news, might really work as a means of telling a good tale about a difficult place. More than that, I began to think that the Victorian saga of a real estate agent who goes to Transylvania to make a deal and comes back with a monster might have a lot to say about our own contemporary superficiality, vulnerability, even fragility in the matter of newsgathering. How do we find news? What do we call news? And what do we do when the news bites back? And it does, by the way, all the time. Most of us who report from far flung parts of the world, from war zones or regions where terrible suffering takes place, don’t just leave that stuff behind. It comes along with us, back into the news rooms and editing bays, working its way into memory and dream.

    MT Bram Stoker's Dracula inspired your book. When/where did you first read it?

    JM: I first encountered the Stoker version of Dracula in a TV show rather than in the book. Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was a unique daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows, featuring a soulful but very toothy vampire named Barnabas Collins, who bit his victims in a world of radically bad acting, lurching sets and shoddy video camera work. To my six and seven year old eyes, that show looked like some form of alternative reality, just as concrete as the living room where I sat in Dallas, Texas, my eyes glued to the screen. I started having nightmares, and my mother forbade me watching the show. Ask any American of my vintage, and you are liable to get some response when you mention Dark Shadows. It was a phenomenon during the Vietnam War, maybe even a loopy Gothic version of it, for small children and stoned teenagers who laughed at the camp and the poor production values. That show mainlined Stoker into a whole generation of American kids.

    So when I got to the book itself, I already had a deep-seated fear of, anxiety about and attraction to the vampire. I can still remember how that opening stretch in the castle terrified me. The way that the three weird sisters coalesced out of Carpathian stardust in front of Jonathan Harker’s eyes—that hypnotized me. It’s one of the two books from childhood—along with Lord of the Rings—that I still read for pleasure as an adult. And it still rewards.

    MT: Fangland is an epistolary novel, but the epistles in question here are emails. Did you enjoy echoing Stoker's form John? Do you think the epistolary novel could make a comeback?

    JM: I once had a college professor who told me that no one had ever written a masterpiece in the epistolary form, and she dismissed the form as drivel. I don’t know about masterpieces, but there are real virtues in terms of storytelling, especially when writing tales of the supernatural. All those early romantic writers knew that a seemingly rational, even documented account of the unearthly and the dreadful would lend a feel of realism to an unreal circumstance. And in Stoker, the use of letters and journal entries help to highlight the sense of scientists, teachers, doctors and solicitors, all men and women of reason, attempting to grapple with an eruption of the inexplicable. In our own time, the new technology of communication, the email, offered a beautiful opportunity to look at the ways that we try to say what can’t yet be said. How do we talk about the Holocaust in an email, for instance, the most fleeting of communications? How do we speak about fear and hatred and disgust and terror in these lightning fast bullets of expression? The vampire in my novel is a creature of the haunted past, and my characters try to talk about him and with him in a technology that defeats them at every turn.

    MT: How long did it take you to write Fangland?

    JM: This novel, my third, came relatively quickly. It took three years, though the first year, I worked my way through a draft that was all over the place. The subject matter, network news meets vampire myth, was volatile as raw material. I didn’t want it to turn either into a gimmick, on the one hand, or a pure work place satire on the other. I wanted it to be real horror that worked on a number of levels. So it took some time to calibrate.

    MT: Fangland is very funny, but on another level it is quite a searing critique of alienated Modern Life. Is it just telly that makes modern life rubbish John? Where did it all go wrong!?

    JM: Thanks for saying so. You’ve asked a huge question. I’ll try to answer. I think it all went wrong long before telly. Human beings have a really hard time coming to terms with a singular fact of their existence: they are woefully, tirelessly violent, and every part of their documented history tells them so, just as every fiber of their being does. And yet we don’t want to think of ourselves that way. We don’t, and we can’t. How paralyzing to remember every day that you are a member of a species that perpetrated Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda and so on? How difficult to pick up a newspaper and read a story about a bloke who beat his ex-wife to death and to realize he’s just behaving in the grand tradition? I’m not saying that we ought to accept this state or forget it, but I am saying that it is a damn hard reality for the mind to register. It’s a thought that seems almost capable of engendering violence on its own. So when it comes to television and news and information gathering and dissemination, in general, the question becomes the one in the novel. What stories do we tell about ourselves and our bloody past? How do we remember? And what do those memories do to us? If we could answer those questions, I reckon we could all watch television with a bit more ease and comfort.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    JM: Bit of all of the above. I start in my journal in longhand. That takes the pressure off. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I don’t feel that I am writing anything fixed or permanent in the journal. Everything feels wonderfully provisional. Most of the time, my words are illegible to anyone but me. I started writing Fangland in a journal and had ten to fifteen pages before I committed any of it to the computer. I wrote a lot of the novel that way, and it may have helped that the story occurred in epistolary form. Early on, to be honest, I wasn’t writing to create a fiction. I was writing to get the demons of work off my back.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Fangland and how did you overcome them?

    JM: First and greatest challenge was Stoker. Why do a new version of a very good book that has been often imitated and never quite surpassed? Why do the vampire myth? Hasn’t that old monster been around the block enough times? Do we really need another bloodsucker? Surely Buffy staked them all. But I felt from the start that I had a new way into the myth that predated Stoker, and that older myth gave me confidence. For one, I knew that my guy would never have fangs, and that he would enact his blood-letting in ritual form. For me, right from the start, he was always a monster tied to the ghosts of our past, and I tried to keep that thought front and center, so he would never conform to stereotype. Also, keeping in mind the tropes of the vampire story, things like crosses and holy water as effective weapons, the place of sex in the story, the powers ascribed to the undead, I constantly subverted them. That was the fun, and it became the point. If I can know the vampire in a new way, then I can know myself in a new way, because I have been so steeped in the story from earliest days that I can’t separate myself imaginatively from it. And I say that as someone no self-respecting Goth kid would ever talk to. I’m not a big Ann Rice fan, though I loved her first, Interview with the Vampire, and I don’t wear much black.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    JM: I am an avid moviegoer and reader. I love music, particularly blues and alt country, and go to see lots of shows. I recently saw a band called the Knitters in Northampton, Massachusetts, a bunch of musicians who have been around for twenty years, and it was like hearing God in the guitars. I have spent the last two years traveling around the United States, working on a non-fiction book about American Christianity. That will come out in January over here.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    JM: Not really. I’m my ideal reader. It’s a cliche by now, but I write books that I want to read. Having said that, with Fangland, it was really important to me that horror fans get caught up in the horror. I didn’t want it to be a stuffy literary exercise in form.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    JM: I’ve just finished a combination of memoir and reportage on the subject of American evangelical Christianity. I was once a born again and then left that world and the faith behind, so I return to the fold for a time to see what’s happening. It reads at times like a horror novel, at other times like a roof-raising Gospel adventure. It was also the most emotionally, psychologically and spiritually exhausting book I’ve ever written. I know now what people mean when they say books will cost you a pound of flesh. This one did.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    JM: I love Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, probably my all-time favorite, toe to toe with Lolita. Conrad was probably the first adult writer to utterly captivate my teenage writer’s mind. Heart of Darkness was the first of those. I majored in German at university, so I constantly go back to Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Thomas Mann, even Kafka, Rilke and Nietzsche. Those writers shaped my intellect and my sense of what great books could do. And German is an utterly beautiful and even lyrical language in the right hands. It is also a language that allows plenty of room for the precise exploration of total darkness.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    JM: Be prepared, if you’re in it for the long haul, to be hit hard a lot of times by all manner of circumstance—the brutality of critics and an indifferent market place, the scorn of peers and the skepticism of loved ones, the bare fact of choices not made and lives not pursued. It’s a great calling and a great life, but not without cost, and one should be clear-eyed. Also, be ready to defend your art to yourself in those moments when no one else will, because if you can’t, you’re done.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    JM: Yes, I’d just like to say that I owe this book to a brilliant, frustrated Irishman named Bram Stoker, who probably doesn’t get half the credit he deserves.

  • Amy Dockser Marcus

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Amy Dockser Marcus is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal based out of Boston. A series of stories that she wrote about the challenges of living with cancer won the Pulitzer Prize for best reporting in 2005. She was based in Israel as The Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent from 1991 to 1998. Her first book, The View From Nebo: How Archaeology is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East, was named one of the top non-fiction books of the year by the Los Angeles Times.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Jerusalem 1913?

    Amy Dockser Marcus: I had been working and living in Israel for many years and grown used to the notion of a constant undercurrent of conflict. But in March, 1997, there was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that shook me. A Palestinian man blew himself up outside a popular Tel Aviv restaurant. There was an image that was replayed over and over again on Israeli TV, that of a distraught policewoman cradling an injured baby outside the destroyed restaurant, calling for the baby's mother to come forward and claim the child. But the mother had been killed in the attack. I think this attack in particular shook me because the baby was the same age as my own daughter at the time, and the restaurant where it took place was one I myself had sat in on many occassions. I started wondering about how the two sides had arrived to such a terrible point, that someone was blowing himself up and killing a young mother. In writing the book, I was very interested in exploring two key questions: first of all, to understand if there had been a period of time when the two sides lived in relative peace, and secondly, what events had forced the sides apart. I focused on the city of Jerusalem because of its continued strategic, political, religious and emotional importance in the conflict and because I knew that it was always a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims shared common ground. When I began reading histories of this period, and poring through the memoirs and diaries written by those who lived in the city at the time, I realized that it was possible to tell a story of a dramatic turning point largely through the eyes of people who lived through it. I also began to see that there were important events where various decisions and choices had to be made, and that these choices in turn made it possible for the ensuing violence to emerge. What was especially poignant was seeing how the main characters in my book--a non-Zionist Jewish leader named Albert Antebi who found himself increasingly collaborating with the Zionists on various projects, a Muslim from a prominent family named Ruhi Khalidi who admired many of the Zionist achievements in Palestine but feared their growing power would lead to violent conflict with the Arabs, and a Zionist Jew named Arthur Ruppin who wrestled with the consequences of seeing his ideas prevail -- interacted with one another. They disagreed on many political issues, sometimes vehemently, but they shared the city, however uneasily. It is the unraveling of their interaction with one another that most touched and moved me.

    MT: Isn't 1913 a rather arbitrary date?

    AM: The Arab-Israeli conflict isn't nearly as old as people think. Given the level of enmity, people often imagine that the conflict stretches back millenia. But actually it dates only as far back as the late 1880s, when large numbers of Jewish settlers began arriving in Palestine with the hopes of establishing new cities. Traditionally, historians have focused on the British Mandate period when tracing the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since this is the time right before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. But I argue that the path to war was already firmly set long before the Mandate period. I chose the year 1913 as the focus of my book because I believed it marked a significant turning point, a year in which key events took place that inexorably led to conflict. This was the last time the Zionist Congress was able to meet before the outbreak of World War I, and at this congress, for the first time, Zionist leaders openly stated that they wanted to see a Jewish cultural and demographic majority in Palestine. They adopted Hebrew as the language that should be spoken and taught in Jewish schools in Palestine. 1913 witnessed a rise in Arab-Jewish violence as Jewish land purchases continued to increase. This was also the year of the first Arab-Zionist peace negotiations, an effort to try to come to some sort of compromise or agreement over the future of Palestine. The two sides realized that they were so far apart that they worried that meeting might actually make things worse. In the end, World War I broke out and so the two sides were unable to meet but the peace talks would have derailed in any event. For these reasons, I think 1913 was a year when choices were made, decisions undertaken, that led to the two sides parting ways.

    MT: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

    AM: It took two-and-a-half years. I spent time in the central archives in Jerusalem, obtaining material, as well as in numerous libraries, including Harvard University's Widener Library, which was a rich source of memoirs and documents from this period. I was able to read copies of Hebrew newspapers from this time at Brandeis University in Waltham and Hebrew College in Newton. I was also fortunate in that family members of several of the key characters in the book provided me with letters, unpublished journals, and other material. One of the challenges of the research was the fact that people used so many different languages during this time period. I needed to get documents translated from German, French, and Arabic. Even though the Zionist Congress embraced Hebrew as the national language, the protocols of the 1913 meeting were in German, which was the common language among Zionist leaders of this period. Albert Antebi, a key character in the book and a Jewish leader in Jerusalem during this period, was a wonderful letter writer. His language was rich and colorful and he left behind voluminous material, but it was all in French.

    MT: How do you write?

    AM: I wrote the first draft of every chapter by long-hand, usually sitting in a comfortable chair in the coffeeshop near my home. Then I would type what I had written and rewrite off the computer.

    MT: Do you see any hope for resolution?

    AM: When I was based in Israel, I lived through a golden period. The Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO had been signed in 1993, followed by a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. I went to Casablanca to cover the Middle East economic summit and was amazed to see Israelis openly discussing business deals with Gulf Arabs. It was a very optimistic time. But Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and the changes in Israeli society that came in the wake of that event, the rise of the suicide bomber on the Palestinian side, the incipient civil war taking place now between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are all troubling things that make it hard to imagine a peaceful resolution any time soon. Still, I believe there is no other alternative except for the two sides to talk to one another and accept a two-state solution.

    MT: Do you miss the role of Middle East correspondent?

    AM: I spent many happy times in the Middle East, and met many generous and interesting people on both sides of the conflict. I still try to go back every year and find it a fascinating and special place. But the Middle East is far less hospitable to journalists and the kind of journalism that I most enjoyed doing there than it used to be. Danny Pearl and I were colleagues at The Wall Street Journal. When I covered the Middle East, I drove in cars with strangers to isolated places without much fear, always assuming that people were as interested in telling me their stories as I was in hearing them and telling them. My faith in this idea died along with Danny.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing Amy?

    AM: I spend time with my family, take long walks, and love to read.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    AM: My experience as a journalist and now in writing my second book is that stories that interest and engage and perplex me are ones that will also pull in others. I am intensely curious about the wider world. I also find myself most interested in the expected, almost counter-intuitive idea, and think my work appeals most to readers who share a similar sensibility.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    AM: I continue to work as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and am writing a series of stories called "Funding A Cure" about the dilemmas of patient advocates who raise large sums of money to help finance research and clinical trials in overlooked diseases.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer/books?

    AM: My favorites are the narrative non-fiction writers -- John McPhee, Joan Didion, Ted Conover, Tracy Kidder, Ryszard Kapuscinski, to name just a few. It is hard to choose a favorite book since more than anything I love being told a riveting story, but two of my favorites are Tracy Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine and Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories of Rwanda.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

    AM: Read voraciously. Have faith that you have an interesting story to tell, and that your perspective is unique.

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