Your writing career started by collecting and then retelling stories about the survivors of the Holocaust. After listening to these stories, what do you feel is the major message that can be gleaned by us all about the experiences you describe?
That’s a complex question. How does a writer recount the pain he is hearing? I learned that it’s acceptable to cry. Without the tears, there can be no relationship between words spoken and words written. I felt to some degree what they are relating. Man’s inhumanity to man is well documented, but in this instance, I heard from children now adults about what befell them at an age when they didn’t understand what it was they were experiencing and it was I that struggled to the end of the interview because I found the stories too painful.
From which activity have you gained the greatest pleasure, writing or speaking? Can you explain?
From telling post Holocaust stories. I love to tell stories of miracles. Stories of chance and circumstance. There is a great release from the audience when I utter the punch lines. I look around the room and I see men and women with tears in their eyes and a smile on their faces. As the credit card commercial states – Priceless.
You branched out into illustrated children’s literature with, “Why, Zaida?” With your background in writing and art, why haven’t you made another effort in Children’s Literature – perhaps convert “Light After Dark” into a Graphic Novel?
It took an emotional experience to conceive the idea behind Why, Zaida? One of the most asked question when I was touring with The Light After the Dark was how do you tell a child about the Holocaust without conjuring up images that are more frightening than enlightening. I gave several answers but none really addressed the question. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. I need not go into the fears and feelings that flow through those afflicted and those unable to do anything. It is a difficult period to address. One day, Marilyn came home from her treatment and told me about another woman going through the same process as she who told her small children about her illness by using a Canada Goose as a metaphor. The more I thought about this the more I recognized that this method was the ideal way of communicating to a child. I live near a conservation park. I went over and sat on a bench and waited for my cast of characters to come by. A dog, a squirrel and a robin. The villain, the victim and the on-looker. I went home and wrote my story. I sent the manuscript and my draft illustrations to several publishers and received two responses that they were interested in the story but not my illustrations. I declined. I wanted watercolouring for the illustrations. I self-published. The book is now part of the curriculum of several schools.
As for turning The Light After the Dark into an illustrated book for children – too difficult for me. I wrote the book for all ages and as mystery stories – not documentaries. On my web site there is a clip of me giving an introduction to one of the stories to a class of middle school students in Regina. You can’t help but laugh when I bring the story to a point of mystery and state: “Now if you want to know what was in the telegram, you are going to have to read my book.” There are groans all over the room and later the teacher called me to say my book was not only out but reserved for the next umpteen weeks.
Do you think the current generation, ie., grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors, have an appreciation for what was endured by their forefathers? What do you think would be the best means to inform all children, not just Jewish children, about the devastation of war?
Another difficult question. Some of the children of survivors are burned out by their parents’ experience. The experience is too fresh and whenever the parent does talk about what happened they do so in the grimmest detail. The grandchildren receive the story in a lighter tone. They are in awe of what they hear and see the Holocaust as a bad time for their grandparents. The survivor never forgets the pain and in some cases the guilt of having survived. But when they see their grandchildren, they are more at peace with their experience. They see a flower and not thorns. They smell freshness and not decay. They feel love and give love. These are things that they couldn’t give their own children because the memories were too fresh.
I try to speak to audiences that are not Jewish. I tell them about a Holocaust in which Jews were selected for death because they were Jews. I point out that genocide still exists all over the world. I remind them that there are many countries in which a Catholic can go and be a Catholic, that a black person can go and feel comfortable that they are black but there is only one country in the world that a Jew can go and feel safe declaring he is Jewish. Just one country. It’s something for them to think about. And six million Jews had to die so the country could be born, in part because countries like Canada wouldn’t let Jews into the country when there was no place for them to seek safety.
You have now branched off into Crime Fiction. What has brought about this change in direction?
My third book The Light After the Dark II did not meet with the success of the first one. I felt it was important that people not forget that period in living history. I conceived an idea of a Jewish detective with a wife who was a child Holocaust survivor that takes her own life. This allowed me to create a crime and at the same time bring the detective’s life into the story and tell of the nightmares the wife experienced, the rape when a child, the fears that linger in the subconscious, and surfaces without warning. I sent segments of the manuscript to Francis Coppola’s web site for critiquing and several of the cases – there are six placed in the top 3 of the month. I sent the manuscript out for consideration and met with rejections. I self-published. The novel The Unlikely Victims was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award in 2002 in the category of Best First Novel
You have been involved in both Traditional and Self-Publication. What do you see as being the strengths and weaknesses of each for you?
Unfortunately, my involvement with Key Porter Books was not something that leaves me with good memories. I realize that my experience with this company is not indicative of what others might do and yet when listening to the stories of other writers on the Internet, I realize that my experience was not unique. Being a self-published author allows me to make more money for my work and to be responsible only to myself. But it also restricts the area in which my work can be sold. If I was to find a responsible publisher, I would prefer that route, but at the age of 70, I find that whenever I tell my age, there is a moment of silence. I sometimes wonder if the party I’m talking with thinks when I state my age, I have passed away.
You have been involved with a number of religious and charitable groups. Do you feel that this form of networking has had any impact on your writing?
Definitely. Not only is it good for networking, it allows me to talk to people and overhear stories that I sometimes turn into sub plots. In fact several of the short stories I sold came about from conversations that I was privy to while attending such meetings. Also, the more people who know you, the more likely you will sell a book because they recognize your name.
You have had at least one work optioned for television. Has this been a rewarding or frustrating experience? Can you explain?
Don’t ask. Off again, on again. My contact has been interviewed several times in Toronto and New York. Last month was the last time. If there is movement, it is minute. I would like to see a series with my Jewish cop but in truth, I’ve lost confidence it will happen.
Would you say that your work is more character or plot driven?
Character driven. All my books focus on the people. I try to have the readers relate to the victim. In a few cases, I’ve had readers e-mail me that they cried when the victim died. I want the reader to empathize with the characters. I have several readers tell me that they couldn’t put a book down and read 450 pages in 3 days. All my books are Holocaust related even my murder mysteries.
It was noted that not many Canadian writers attacked the Holocaust as fertile ground for stories. Can you think of a reason why it was ignored? For instance – before and during the war the Canadian Government turned away many Jewish folks that were trying to gain access to the freedom and safety that Canada offered. It is not a story that has been told and totally explored.
Ironically, I attended a lecture at York University several years ago in which the lecturer made that same statement. I don’t know why writers shy away from the Holocaust. Maybe they feel that it won’t sell to the public – to someone who is Jewish, yes, because the Holocaust is such a big part of their living past – but not the public. I relate what I do to the movie of the sinking of the Titanic. When the movie came out, people flocked to the theatre. Why? They knew before they paid their $8.00 that the ship was going to sink. Where’s the suspense? The suspense was not in the sinking but in the passengers. The movie was about several passengers. The Titanic was the background. The movie The Pianist was such a story. A story of a man during the Holocaust.
In terms of personal growth, what have you gained from your writing and speaking career?
More than I imagined. I am accomplishing something that when I was young I dreamed of doing. Circumstances prevented me from following my dream. While convalescing from a heart attack, my wife asked if I had any regrets. I had one. I was a high school drop out. My father died when I was 18 and I joined the work force and built a successful business. My regret was that I didn’t return to school to pursue my dream. My wife enrolled me at York University at the age of 58 and I was taught how to put the stories that were in my head onto paper. Every book, every speaking engagement is my way of confirming that I did it – I am living my dream.
What projects are you currently working on?
In 2004 I published An Eye For An Eye, the first in a trilogy. A Holocaust murder/love story. It won the BookAdz Award in 2005. This year I completed the second part The Minyan in which I bring the story forward to the year 2000. My Jewish cop is called on to solve an old case connecting one novel to the other. At present, I am writing the third novel, In The Name of Justice. This will bring the story to the year 2003. Following that, I have already started another detective novel that is not going to be Holocaust related but have a Jewish flavour.
When I sold the rights to my first manuscript, someone I met stated that he read the first book and thought it was interesting but he figured I was a one book wonder. Well, it seven and counting. I hope to make it to 10 before the Old Folks Home calls on me for occupancy.
Age is a number – Attitude is an opinion too often based on nothing but a lack of clear thought.