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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Interview with Mitchell James Kaplan, author of By Fire, By Water

Hello Everyone!  Please give a warm welcome to Mitchell, author of the book By Fire, By Water.  My review can be found here.

Lets get started.

You have said that you knew at an early age you would be a writer. What is it about writing that makes you enjoy it so much or be so passionate about it? What is it about writing that “grabs” you?

It seems to me that what we call fiction is an effort to approximate truth. By “truth,” I'm referring to the most important truth, the truth of human experience. Human beings the world over, and throughout history, have told stories for precisely this reason. We have an innate need to “get at” what really matters.

What is your writing process like? Is there a specific time of day and place that you go to work? Do you have a list of topics you would like to explore and write about in the future?

I wake very early, usually around 3:30 am, and get my best work done while the rest of the world is sleeping. I love the feeling of isolation, the romance of early morning. Ideas pop into my head at any time of day, however. Sometimes I write them down, but usually I don't bother. The really important ones germinate and grow over time. I do know what my next few books will be about.

How has working in Hollywood affected your writing? Has it fine tuned or clarified your process? Maybe changed your point of view or thought process?

I never fully assimilated to the culture of the film industry. I wanted to be a novelist and in many ways, working in the film industry felt like a detour. That said, one learns from all experiences. Working for the film industry did force me to pay a lot of attention to the art of storytelling, as opposed to the purely aesthetic aspects of writing – style, innovative narrative constructs, etc. – that preoccupied me as a student at Yale and subsequently, when I lived in Paris. I have to admit, too, that I did (at times) enjoy the glamour of working (and occasionally dining) with movie stars. I also learned how to deal with rejection, how to trust my instincts, and how to survive contact with egomaniacs.

Congratulations on having By Fire, By Water published. That is an amazing accomplishment. How was the process of getting published for you? Did it differ greatly from having your scripts bought and were you more prepared than most given your background and experience?

The experience of having a book published is indeed quite different from selling a screenplay. You make a lot more money when you sell a screenplay, but you give up your rights in the material. The producer and/or director has the right to hire another writer to change your words – and usually does so. I was also hired to change other writers' words, and hated the experience. It felt like trespassing. In the film industry, I always felt I had to read others' minds, to try to guess what the director or producer wanted from me. I had to try to understand their sensibilities and base my approach to the work on that understanding. Usually, I got it wrong. All in all, writing and editing my novel, and seeing it published, has been far more satisfying than any experience I had in the film industry.

I had never realized before that the Spanish Inquisition and Christopher Columbus occurred at the same time. (We can blame that on my high school history classes.) What is it about this time period in Spanish history or these events that made you want to research and explore this area?

I found a satisfying and inspiring irony in the idea that Columbus sailed from a world that was destroying itself due to intolerance – the world of the middle ages – and that he discovered the land where eventually, for the first time in history, tolerance would become the law. I think that was my starting point.

The story grew little by little. It was like putting together a puzzle. Research was like reaching into a huge bag of jigsaw pieces – a footnote here, a pertinent detail there. For example, the owner of an art gallery in Spain pointed out to me that Queen Isabella had a goiter that she always tried to cover. I find bits of information like that fascinating and suggestive. When I learned that Luis de Santangel was a business partner of the Duke of Medina-Celi, with whom Columbus lived for a time, I was blown away. A bridge suddenly connected two of the characters I had been working with! I had many mind-boggling experiences like that.

Would you say that because of By Fire, By Water you are now drawn to exploring and writing about historical events impacted greatly by religion? This would certainly keep you busy for years to come. Does your own faith make you want to explore its historical events, maybe looking for stories waiting to be told?

Yes, I am deeply interested in the history of religion, in the effects of religion on history and vice-versa, and in the history of relations between faiths. I'm not sure whether my own faith is a factor, but I am certain my identity is a factor.

You have visited many places and countries. Are there any places you would like to go but haven’t yet?

I have never been interested in tourism, and I don't much care for the travel industry. Often, I think people go to faraway places for the sake of being able to say they went there. It's a form of “conspicuous consumption,” and I want nothing to do with that kind of travel. I do, however, love learning about the places I visit, and I have strong memories associated with certain locales. Geneva, Shanghai, Jerusalem, Kyoto: Each of these words calls up a world of sights, sounds, and odors.

To put this another way: I don't usually go places just for the sake of going there. I initially went to France because I wanted to read through Proust, and I thought Paris would be the best place to do so. So I don't sit around dreaming of the places I could visit, but I may find compelling reasons to go just about anywhere. For my next book, I will probably end up spending more time in Rome and Israel.

I read that your other passion is music, classical and jazz flute. I enjoy classical and am just learning about jazz. What are some of your most favorite pieces of music or composers? (I adore Scheherazade and some of Rachmaninoff’s work, among many others.)

Well, you and I agree on Rachmaninoff. How can anyone not fall in love with those piano concertos? He was a conservative composer, writing strictly tonal music in a time when others were concerned with expanding the musical language -- but he stuck to his vision and certainly achieved greatness.

There's so much music I love. It's so fun to play Bach flute sonatas. It's equally fun to improvise with John Coltrane records – or with other musicians.

If you asked me who is the greatest composer of all time, I would probably say Beethoven. He's not the most technically brilliant (although he was a great innovator and one of the most original and talented orchestrators). But I find his lyricism and sense of drama absolutely addictive.

I also love much of Brahms, some of Mozart's operas, Chopin's Nocturnes, a lot of Debussy. For me, Stravinsky was the towering genius of twentieth-century orchestral music.

In jazz, Dixieland, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane... Unfortunately, a lot of jazz since Coltrane has, in my view, been extremely skillful but derivative.

In the arena of fusion, I think the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a brief moment of brilliance. In rock, my favorite group of all time is the Beatles.

None of that is too original, I guess. Of course, I could throw out some more obscure names. But the greatest musicians, like the greatest writers, are artists who know how to connect with a broad audience.

And lastly, what can we look forward to from you in the future?

My next book takes place in the first century AD and deals with the “parting of the ways” between the two sects of Judaism that survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. One of those sects eventually developed into Christianity, the other into modern Judaism.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.  I enjoyed your book immensely and look forward to reading more from you.  You have given me some food for thought and some music I need to look into (Mahavishnu Orchestra).  Thanks :)

For more information about Mitchell, please stop by his website.

Thanks for stopping by everyone!

The historical novel By Fire, By Water  tells the heartbreaking story of Luis de Santangel, the courtier who convinced Queen Isabella to sponsor Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery in 1492. Combining a passionate love story with a religious mystery, By Fire, By Water closely follows historical events during a troubled time, when the medieval social order was collapsing.