Interviewed by Spencer Wise
On March 13th, 2010 in Fort Meyers, Florida at the Red Sox vs. Pirates Spring Training game, I interviewed one of my literary idols, Leslie Epstein, who also happens to be the father of Theo Epstein, General Manager of the Red Sox. As a Boston native, life-long Red Sox fan, and former employee of Sports Illustrated, I found my geeky nirvana. The plan? Watch a game, interview one of my favorite authors. But half of what Leslie says is drowned out on my tape by “Let’s go Red Sox” chants and crowd-hyping pop music blasted over the loudspeaker. Three of Epstein’s close friends and relatives were with him. They are Ernie, Bernie, and Jimmy. I was sitting between Ernie and Leslie. Overall, it was a disaster of an interview. Trying to have a serious literary discussion at a baseball game proved impossible, but humorous. Since Epstein’s own writing is rich with humor, and because he talks about humor as one of the bedrocks of Jewish fiction, what follows is this funny, epic failure of an interview that’s half literary talk, half baseball commentary.
Leslie Epstein was born in Los Angeles to a family of filmmakers. His father and uncle together wrote dozens of films, including Casablanca. He has published ten works of fiction, including The Steinway Quintet Plus Four, Goldkorn Tales, and San Remo Drive. His best-known novel, King of the Jews, became a classic of Holocaust Fiction. His articles and stories have appeared in such places as Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s. He was a Rhodes Scholar and later won many additional awards and fellowships, including a Fulbright. He received his D.F.A. in Playwriting from the Yale Drama School. Epstein has been the director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University for over thirty years.
Spencer Wise: One of the things I noticed in your work is a motif of music: melting pianos, Dali museum, cello, and music is featured prominently in Steinway Quintet. Do you play an instrument?
Bernie: “Oh, he got him? Wow!”
Leslie Epstein: I don’t play any instruments. I have a tin ear. I wish I knew. I mean I know a lot about it, but I can’t play. I did piano as a kid, but I gave it up. I was horrible at it. But my mother played the piano and was interested in classical music, and as a kid I listened to classical music a lot. Nabokov once said he can’t go to concerts because he keeps noticing the reflection of the violinist’s brow in the violin. And I get distracted. But I’m currently taking a class on Mahler now. Private course at Boston College. This fellow recommended the teacher to me, said he’s a very good teacher, and he is. That’s where my interests are now.
SW: So the musicians in Steinway Quintet, and that gorgeous final performance at the restaurant—that’s insider knowledge—but you were faking it the whole way through?
LE: Yeah, faking it, but not the emotions in it. When they play their last performance the emotions are real, and this idea of connecting people now through all these people who have been dead so long, that means a lot to me. I think that they are still alive through art.
SW: A theme in your work is this idea of responsibility from one generation to the next, passing on lessons. In your essay “Coming Home,” you write about the fate of the Jews and this sense of Jewish history—how “we carry [it] within us like the weight of our bones.” What role does history play in your work?
LE: I was no history major, but it is the mother of the muses: history. And I think appropriately so. If there is no memory, there is no anything. Memory is what we’re for and these kids have no idea, and the university is not helping them. Even if you haven’t studied the Holocaust, this is true of me too, it passes from Jew to Jew, like osmosis, some hidden membrane. When you think about that: there is this nation, the most civilized nation in the world, [and] they’re going to kill every single Jew, and they pretty much succeeded in Europe. It’s just impossible to come to terms with. Nothing is more educational than that. Nothing tells us more about human nature and who we are. You can’t ever really be sentimental or have a perfectly positive view of life when you know that that happened.
SW: Your most famous novel, King of the Jews, is one of my favorites, but critics said some really nasty things, like Ruth Wisse calling it a “hollow metaphysical joke,” or Lucy Dawidowicz accusing you of dancing on the graves of the Jews. What is the role of humor and laughter in your work, and why does it seem to rankle the critics so much?
LE: It was a stupid remark, but it got to me because when my father died, my brother and I, instead of going to the funeral (our mother’s mistake), we went to see Alec Guinness in Lavender Hill Mob, and we laughed our foolish heads off. Danced, you see, on the grave of our father.
SW: That scene appears in San Remo Drive.
LE: Yes, and we were laughing our heads off. I can connect it to Mahler. The most important thing that ever happened to Mahler was kind of a similar thing. You know his father and mother were always fighting. Anyway what happened was a big fight and Mahler ran outside from this traumatic fight and heard an organ grinder playing and that mixture of light and dark, the comic and tragic, moved him. And that’s all Mahler’s music all the time, and it also connects to my writing. (Red Sox player walks away from the plate.) We’re going to see a lot of strikeouts this year.
SW: (Awkward pause.) So, Freud has also had a large impact on your writing, no?
LE: For everyone. Freud is fundamentally correct: we have an unconscious that runs much more of our lives than we give it credit for. From childhood on.
SW: Do you ever worry that you will run out of material? That your unconscious will run out?
LE: Oh, yeah. I’m a friend of Aaron Appelfeld, the great Israeli writer, child of the Holocaust, amazing childhood, survived by wandering around in the forest being helped by gypsies and prostitutes. And I asked him, ‘Aaron why don’t you write about this directly?’ And he said, ‘Leslie, I am afraid the well will run dry. My fiction comes from these experiences and I don’t want to think about it directly,’ and that worried me about writing San Remo Drive because I thought, jeez I’m doing what Aaron said not to do, going directly to the well. We’ll find out whether it’s dried up or not. I did write a novel after it, which was well received and I like it fine [8th Wonder], but it got the single worst review anyone’s ever gotten in the NY Times. It said, ‘This book is so bad that you don’t even need to finish reading this review.’ That killed the book of course.
SW: What is one of your favorite short stories? A classic.
LE: “Blood of the Walsungs” by Thomas Mann. Twins that go to the theater. Wonderful story. I told my class to read it. What a pleasure to be in the hands of a master. Sets the scene, tells us a few things about the character, and we’re not having to worry about winks and nods.
Ernie: So much for sharing my cashews.
SW: I read a great Fredrick Busch article about Steinway. What did you think about that laudatory essay?
LE: He stresses the employment side [of Steinway]. Man desperate for work. He really, really loved Steinway Quintet. Maybe I’m misremembering. As Roger Clemens said, I don’t know what’s wrong with the word ‘misremembering.’ Everyone jumped on him for that, but it seems like a useful word. Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly. I think Busch begins and ends with a guy looking for work, but it’s more about art and the relationship of art to self—how one can deceive oneself about art, about longing, and also of course about the meeting of the civilized life and the irrational violent life. It’s always the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
SW: What do you think about creative writers taking literature classes?
LE: I think you can discover interesting things. What I tell my students: Huck Finn. It’s not a novel about race relations, not a novel about a homoerotic teen, not about the study of economics of the South. What it is is a story about a black man and a white boy going down the Mississippi on a raft and having a hell of a good time. Let the English department worry about these other things. They aren’t a writer’s concern. You can’t sit down and write a novel about a theme. I think plot trumps form. Action is the soul of the tragedy. Plot is the main thing.
SW: Are there are a lot of plotless stories in your program?
LE: When they enter the program, but not when they leave. I’m always stressing these things. Plot and dialogue. I say just sit your people down at a dinner table and have them start talking. One of the main things: keep out of people’s heads. Do not write like Virginia Woolf if you want to get through this year. What people do and what they say, and that’s it. No dreams, no memories, no photographs. Show us what people do and say. Of course every one of these rules is meant to be broken, but you have to justify breaking them.
SW: Has your background in theater helped with plot?
LE: My work is dramatic. Dramatic climaxes all over the place. Too many, maybe. (Points at Ernie) Ernie says I don’t let the reader relax. But I’d like to think there’s something enjoyable or noteworthy in every paragraph or maybe every sentence. And maybe readers don’t like that. Too demanding.
Bernie: They don’t have any onions? I’m going to have a hotdog without onions? Just mustard? That’s not a hotdog.
SW: Um, do you map out or outline your stories?
LE: No. I always tell my students you should have between 61 and 66 percent of your ending in mind before you start: any less and you’ll wander in the desert; any more and you’ll cut off any room for surprise or spontaneity.
SW: Did you know the ending for Steinway when you started?
LE: I read that the restaurant I so enjoyed going to as a kid was closing, and I thought, what’s going to happen to these poor waiters?
SW: How did you get the voice so perfect?
LE: I always liked old Jews.
SW: I love old Jews.
LE: Goldkorn [from Steinway] is just a voice.
SW: There’s not a lot of interiority to him.
LE: He’s speaking the whole time.
SW: In King of the Jews the tragic ending is based on a historical event, no? But it’s never mentioned.
LE: That’s right. The Polish mayor told the Russian General running the show: I’ll bet you 500 zlotys I can do the whole Holocaust memorial speech and never once mention the word Jews. So I said okay, I bet I can write a 300-page novel without writing the word Nazi.
SW: All the code words for Nazi officials: Big Man, Horowitz… Is that from your research?
LE: Yes. Some of it.
SW: Why doesn’t the [marketing of] King of the Jews say anywhere it’s based on Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat in Lodz? Publisher decision?
LE: It doesn’t say anywhere?
LE: Might have been a mistake.
Bernie: There’s Beltre missing one, Ernie.
Ernie: I would’ve made that play. I would’ve got to that ball and then thrown it over the first baseman’s head. I held the record for the most errors in Little League history. (New batter steps to the plate.) Now we got lefty on lefty.
SW: Who’s the advantage to?
LE: Pitcher’s advantage. You’re not a baseball fan—I can see that.
SW: (Dies a little inside.) I’m a fan.
LE: What are you doing in Florida?
SW: Ph.D.. Writing a novel
LE: What’s the novel about?
SW: Doing a collection of short stories about being Jewish. Not sure what direction to go in. How do you come up with novel ideas? Did you start with plot or character in King of the Jews?
LE: I read a paragraph about a guy who rode through the Lodz ghetto on a white horse, and I thought it was so fascinating.
SW: Do you write in the morning?
LE: Now I teach late afternoons, so I have all day to write.
SW: Are you still writing plays?
LE: I’m turning San Remo Drive into a play. It works because I write dramatically.
SW: You went to school for playwriting?
LE: My doctorate is in playwriting.
SW: Do you watch Hollywood films?
LE: I just saw Hurt Locker. It’s good. It’s not superb, but it’s good. Also Curb Your Enthusiasm. Mostly improvised. Brilliant people. I did a piece on movies for Playboy in ‘72 or so. Childhood memories of film tying in with the eroticism of memories. It was called “Cine-Duck.” I think there were twins on the cover. My editor and I just sent them an excerpt from the new novel. It’s called “Ménage à Six”: Goldkorn, girl behind, girl in front, girl on bottom, girl on top, and a cat licking the soles of his feet. Total bliss.
SW: Glorious. So, um, advice for young writers: go back and study old plays?
LE: I stress the drama of things and building to a climax. That classic structure.
SW: A lot of your favorite books don’t necessarily have that structure. Like Proust.
LE: Proust is genius. Genius trumps everything.
Ernie: Ball four.
(Let’s go Red Sox! chant)
LE: Are you going to start your article: “So I’m sitting in the stands at a Red Sox game with four Jews…”
Ernie: There’s only 15 of us in the whole stands.
SW: I thought there were lots of Jews in Fort Myers.
Ernie: It’s all Miami.
SW: Would you move to Florida?
LE: Never. Not in a million years. California I would.
Ernie: He’s not moving from Brookline. He makes so much money in our poker game; you got to get that in there for whatever article you’re writing. As good a professional writer as he is, he’s the king of poker.
LE: You’re the king.
Ernie: He’s the only who’s ever had five of a kind.
LE: Someone I’ve been reading a lot lately. Babel. Isaac Babel. I’ve been reading everything. Wonderful. The heart. Certain writers have heart. Salinger. All the Glass stories. Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenter. The Seymour stories. I hand out to my class the last thing he published. It was in The New Yorker. Gorgeous. Memory. Childhood. 1967. Long short story. Sensibility.
SW: When does sensibility cross over into the sentimentality?
LE: When you begin to feel that the author is asking for the response. That’s one sign. The definition of sentimentality is unearned emotion. The film Life is Beautiful is unearned. You can almost say the definition of sentimentality is a certain way of defining false happiness—when the author wants you to feel good at the end, instead of devastated.
(“Sweet Caroline” over the loud speaker, whole crowd singing “bum, bum, bum, good times never seem so good. So good. So good. So good.”)
SW: I love your humor. It’s very Jewish.
LE: Where humor is totally absent, prick up your ears. You’re probably going to find sentimentality. That would be my guess. Life is complicated; it’s all mixed up. Sheer things: sheer love, sheer horror—
SW: —doesn’t exist.
LE: Well, I don’t know if they don’t exist. But it might not be the smartest thing to tackle. (Leslie sighs.) These pitches are coming straight in. They’re not even 90 mph. Ask the guy with the gun. There’s no break in the ball. Very easy to see it. No movement. Ask the scout, Ernie.
Ernie: No, I’m gonna call Theo and discuss this with him. Your son can’t wait to hear my analysis of the game. Could shape the whole season.
SW: Does it drive Theo crazy to talk baseball with you guys?
Ernie: Theo came down last year, and he was going to stay three innings, but he left after an inning and a half. And I said, ‘Leslie, why did he leave?’ And he said, ‘You wouldn’t stop asking him questions about the lineup. He came down here to get a break.’ But he’s very nice. Had us over last night for dinner, we played tennis this morning, and he wants to join us tonight for cards. (Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” plays over loudspeaker.) Why are the flags at half-mast?
LE: Who passed away?
SW: A commissioner. I don’t know which one. A baseball commissioner.
Ernie and Leslie: Bud Selig died?
SW: Um, I don’t think so. I’m messing this up. Right before you guys got here, we had a moment of silence after the anthem.
Ernie (to scout): Who died?
Scout: A county commissioner.
Ernie (to Leslie): Bud Selig’s fine. Everything’s fine.