A Journey of Self-Discovery
ERIC FORBES talks with American novelist RICHARD ZIMLER about his new novel and what he learned about himself in the process of writing his novels
RICHARD ZIMLER is a New York-born novelist who lives in Porto, Portugal. A professor of journalism in Porto, he is the author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Unholy Ghosts, The Angelic Darkness, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, The Search for Sana and The Seventh Gate. His new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, was published by Arcadia Books and The Overlook Press in 2011. Zimler is the co-editor with Raza Sekulovic of an anthology of stories, The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood.
Tell me something about yourself.
I’m a very lucky person: I’m doing what I want—writing—and I can make a living at it. I also get lovely emails from readers all over the world. And my partner and I are still in love after 31 years together. And I’m grateful every day for all the good things that have happened to me. The only advice I usually give to students—if they ask me—is, follow your passions. That’s pretty much my personal philosophy. Of course, it isn’t always easy trying to follow your passions. Among other things, being yourself can get you into trouble with people who’d prefer you be someone else!
You have lived in Portugal since 1990. What’s it like to live in Portugal?
The cultural shocks of living and working in Portugal were enormous, and—in hindsight—were exacerbated by my own feelings of vulnerability. I started teaching right away, since I’d gotten a job at the College of Journalism. That was a good thing, of course, since it gave me a purpose and forced me to mix right away with the locals. But I hardly spoke any Portuguese. And I quickly learned that my students didn’t understand English very well. So I learned Portuguese as quickly as I could. I gave my first year of classes in a mixture of English and Portuguese. I sometimes say that I made more grammatical mistakes in my first year of teaching than anyone in the history of the country, and I think that’s probably true!
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
My mother saved some of the poems I wrote when I was very little, maybe six or seven years old. So I know I always liked to write. But I also liked to draw and paint, and to sing and play the guitar. So, while I was growing up, I wasn’t sure which creative direction I’d go towards.
As a young adult, I lacked the confidence to believe I could be a novelist. And I lacked the maturity to write something good and important. My lack of confidence was due, in part, to my own personality, and also due to the kind of household I grew up in. My mother lived for books, particularly novels. She had a library of 3,000 or more books. She venerated her favourite novelists—Proust, Stendhal, Austen. This had a positive effect on me, in the sense that I always felt comfortable with books and had easy access to a wide variety of novels and history texts. But due to my mother’s veneration, I never thought I’d ever be able to measure up. Who was I to think I could come anywhere close to Bellow or Dickens?
So I only started writing fiction seriously—short stories at first—in 1987, when I was 31 years old. By then, I had acquired more confidence about my own abilities, in part because I’d gotten my master’s degree in journalism at Stanford and then worked for five years as a journalist in San Francisco. And I knew myself well enough to begin to turn out good work.
It was while I was writing The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, back in 1992, that I realised that being a novelist was what I wanted to do. I would start writing at around 8:30 in the morning and the next time I looked at the clock it would be 11 a.m. or noon. I felt I was right at the centre of where I needed to be.
What does it mean to be a writer?
Being a writer means dedicating myself to exploring my own relationship with words and storytelling. It means thinking poetically, and putting myself into the mind and body of other people (and seeing the world from their point of view). It means trying to write the best books I can and committing myself to contributing to the world through them. I love the process of writing—of discovering what the novel wants to be (and what each sentence wants to be!). I say that because when I start a book, I know more or less what’s going to happen in the first chapter, but after that I have very little idea of what’s going to happen. Characters can suddenly appear whom I didn’t plan on having in the book. And they can say and do things that I could never have predicted. Of course, I have to control all this to a certain extent—to put all my discoveries at the service of the story—but after writing eight novels, I feel I know how to do that pretty well.
Your novels are all set in the near or distant past except for Unholy Ghosts and The Angelic Darkness which are set in contemporary Portugal and San Francisco respectively. Which do you prefer: the past, the present, or both?
I need to feel passionate about a story and its characters in order to sit at my desk eight hours a day. So whether the novel or story is set in the past or present doesn’t matter much. All that matters is my curiosity about what the novel wants to become—my absolute need to tell the story. And the feeling that I’m being challenged and having a new and important adventure. Having said that, I do sometimes like to write about the past because I feel I can gain a perspective that is harder to achieve than when I’m writing about the present. When I write a historical novel, I am able to tell a very specific and detailed story, but also to explore big themes like slavery, as I did in Hunting Midnight, or the effect of a repressive political system on love and friendship, as I did in Guardian of the Dawn. The distance from the present time helps me achieve that wide focus.
Can you tell me a bit about your new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams?
The original idea for The Warsaw Anagrams was to write about day-to-day life in the Jewish ghettos created by the Nazis and, more specifically, to explore the life of an elderly Jewish psychiatrist who survives a labour camp and returns home to a city where he no longer has any friends or loved ones. I was—and am—very interested in how we find the courage to go on with our lives after suffering great traumas.
I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, but I knew very little about the ghettos. The more I read about them, the more they seemed like “Jewish islands” cut off from the rest of the world. That image fascinated me. Also, my family’s European relatives were all interned in ghettos before being sent to the death camps, so researching this novel became, in part, a search for how they spent the last years of their lives.
While writing the very first page of the book, the novel changed, however. I was writing from the point of view of Erik Cohen, the elderly Jewish psychiatrist, and I wrote: I’m a dead man. I meant it metaphorically—that he’d lost his loved ones and his profession and had no more reason to go on with his life. But as soon as I wrote it, I had a revelation: Erik was indeed dead. He was what we call in Jewish tradition an ibbur—a spirit that remains in this world to fulfil a duty or obligation that he failed to fulfil in life. But what was that duty? Why was he still here, in our world? After Erik returns to Warsaw, he discovers one visionary man—Heniek Corben—who can see and hear him. So Erik tells the story of his year of life in the Warsaw ghetto to Heniek in order for them to figure out what he still needs to do.
While researching the Warsaw ghetto, I learned that it had a thriving black market, and that many children were forced into a life of smuggling. It seemed the perfect place to set a noir mystery. So the story of Erik’s last year also involves the mystery surrounding the death of his beloved grandnephew, Adam.
One of the books I read to research the novel was Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. In it, he uses anagrams to refer to his friends and to ghetto officials. In part, this was to avoid their getting into trouble (if his writings were ever discovered by the Nazis). But I knew from my studies of Kabbalah that the practice of creating anagrams also fit very well into an old and important Jewish tradition: that certain words and names—like the secret names of God—are so powerful that they can be dangerous. So I decided to explore that connection in the book, as well as another idea that interests me a lot—that the Holocaust has forced us into developing new ways to express the previously inexpressible. So The Warsaw Anagrams also became a book about words and language and—in between the lines—related kabbalistic traditions.
I love Erik and several other people in this book, particularly Izzy, Erik’s best friend, who has a great sense of humour. Like many people struggling against an unbearable situation, they aren’t aware of just how brave they are. So through them, the novel also becomes a story of heroism.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your novels?
Most importantly, I learned what I want to do with my life: to write, write, write. I’ve also learned a great deal about what provokes my emotions—what kinds of things move me, make me enraged, and make me feel joy. And how to use that knowledge to create works that will have an emotional effect on my readers. I’ve learned that I’m pretty good at entering the minds of other people and seeing the world from their point of view. And that such a talent can be helpful for my life beyond writing—for understanding my relationships with other people, for instance. I’ve learned that I can be wrong about a great many things. I’ve discovered what my creative limitations are.
What do you look for in a good story?
I’m very interested in writing at the level of words and sentences, but the entire sweep of a story is also important to me. So I think a great novel is one which has: wonderful and surprising sentences, original metaphors, intelligent ways of expressing emotions and thoughts; a great story about complex characters; and something important to say about the world. I often read books that have one of these ingredients, but not the others. It’s particularly common these days to have writers who love to show off their technique—that have sparks flying in every sentence—but who simply can’t tell a story.
Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine