Interview: Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin, the well-known novelist and occasional polemicist, agreed to sit down with DOUBLETHINK‘s fiction editor, Kelly Jane Torrance, for an extended on-the-record interview. His 1983 novel Winter’s Tale received multiple votes in the New York Times Book Review‘s May survey of “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.”
Visiting him in March 2006, at his home near Charlottesville, Virginia, Kelly asked Mr. Helprin about his novels, his politics, his views on the war, and much else. Below is the full 13,000-word conversation, the first 7,000 of which appeared in this space on August 7-9, 2006. — The Editors, August 10, 2006
DT: You were published in the New Yorker when you were 22, I believe?
MH: Yes, I had two stories that were bought when I was 21. I have no idea what it is these days because I don’t publish there anymore, but the delay in publication then would sometimes be several years. I had stories that were bought and not published for five years. So the first two were bought when I was still 21 and I was still a student, but barely that; I graduated three seconds later. Then they published the first one, and the next one was published five years later. There was another one in between. The last story I published there was in 1988. When William Shawn left, and this happens to everybody, your structure with which you’re comfortable collapses. I wasn’t one of the people who walked out and said, “Oh, this is terrible.” It’s very infantile to do that. But on the other hand, it wasn’t that they were right to do that, but their judgment of what happened was correct. The magazine changed, obviously, to the point where I even cancelled my subscription.
. . .
Shawn was very peculiar. I mean, he was really peculiar. But he was like me. We were much the same. He was terrified of people, and I am too, pretty much. I have a social phobia. But he did too. So we got along very well. And I used to do things he thought were outrageous for the New Yorker. For instance, at that time, I had a friend who used to do all kinds of stuff which was very scary. Physical feats, one after another: Jumping off the top of a freight train off a bridge — the freight train was going over a bridge — into the river. Running along the top of the freight train, even in winter, when they were covered with ice, jumping from a box car to a tank car.
I did this once, I was in boots. Not these kind of boots with this kind of sole, but ones with a flatter leather sole. And it was winter. I was running on the top of a box car and I came to the tank car down below. We were going over a railroad bridge which is near the B.U. Bridge over the Charles River and the tank car had a sheet of ice on it. The train was moving over the bridge over the river, which was covered with ice. And I jumped from the top of that car to the tank car, and I managed to stay on and he followed. We did things like that.
One of the things that we used to like to do was to walk on our hands. There was a book by Harry Crews and it had a character by the name of Marvin Molar. He had no legs, but his arms were really, really strong. We were pretty young at that time. We did hand-walking. We used to walk around the football field twice on our hands. Now that’s a long distance to walk on your hands. But we were really strong. And when I went to the New Yorker, I’d show up out of the elevator on my hands. I’d show up at the reception desk and say, “I’m here,” and the receptionist would say, “Uh, OK, I’ll buzz you in.” That was later, at first they didn’t have a buzzer, a security barrier. And I would walk down the hall, go into my editor’s office on my hands. So Mr. Shawn thought I was very peculiar, and that was good, he liked that. We had a nice relationship in that we never, ever talked or saw each other or anything like that because we were both too shy.
I also rappelled down the side of the office building once to get in. After they put the barrier in, my job was to sneak through in various ways. Dressed as a window-cleaner once, I got in through a window.
DT: Obviously, that’s pretty young. Did you always know you’d be a writer? Was it something that was always there?
MH: No, in fact, I wanted to be a doctor. My daughter came with her friends from Johns Hopkins, they study public health, and they’re all EMTs. She arrived a few nights ago. They were all dressed as firefighters, with firefighter helmets, radios, with all kinds of electronics. It’s different from the way firemen used to be. And she’s taken up where I wanted to go. She’s at Hopkins studying in the medical field. That’s what I wanted very much. But then it just disappeared. But it was excursions out from the base. The base was always telling stories.
When I was in second grade, I got my first book contract offer. My father wouldn’t let me take it, because my mother was a child actress, and it really ruined her. Are there any child actors or actresses who aren’t ruined? What’s the name of the guy who killed his wife? Robert Blake. He was a little kid in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. They are generally ruined, and my father, knowing my mother very well, saw the effect on her, being a performer, and said no, you can’t do that.
DT: What was the project for?
MH: It was an offer from Golden Books, which is a division of Simon and Schuster.
DT: I had many Golden Books.
MH: You did? Well, I wanted to write. One was for my life of Lincoln and the other was for a novel, a short one —you know, they’re thin — but a novel, a story. And that was a serious offer. Because I was just known as a storyteller. And that really did occur.
. . .
Miss Daniels, who was my third-grade teacher, used to, from the time that I entered the school, even before class, bring me aside during play period and take down in long hand the stories that I would tell. And when I was a kid also, when I’d go to people’s houses, I would spend all night telling them stories. It was sort of like a medieval thing. And that was my role. I would sit there and entertain all the kids — and it separated me from them, because I was like an entertainer, like a juggler. I was paid by the meal, in fact. So, yes, I always knew I wanted to do that.
DT: How does someone with a background like yours end up working along the way as a dishwasher?
MH: Are you kidding? Here’s the thing. You have a choice in publishing. I could talk to you about publishing for millions of years. But even back then, when publishing was relatively uncorrupted, clean, and made sense, compared to now, one had a choice. And the choice was, either you take advances and you owe yourself to the company store, because by the time you finish the book, you’ve gone through your advance. Usually, before you’ve finished the book you’ve gone through the advance, and you have to go to the publisher and beg another advance, and they lend to you — and they consider it a loan — for the next book. It also gives them the opportunity to build leverage over you, tremendous leverage, because you hand them the book, and they say, well, we don’t like it, but the contract says we have to accept it, so, give us back the money or change it the way we want it. And very often it’s “give us back the money.” And of course the poor sucker then doesn’t have the money, or he’s drunk it. And so you have to make the choice. Are you going to be independent, sell them a book once it’s concluded? So that you negotiate the book and they say, “Well, we’ll only buy it if you make the horse into a dolphin,” say, and you say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” then, “Goodbye, I’ll let you find another publisher.” If you take an advance, you can’t do that.
So, I wanted the most freedom, and I cannot stand being in debt. It’s very painful to be in debt. And I’ve only been in debt once, which was when my children were young and they had health problems. Which, thank God, have been resolved completely. But they did. I’m the kind of person who would rather almost die than go into debt. But the children have to be in good health, so I went into debt, which I still don’t regret, even though there was a hell of a trouble, but that’s over now. So if you’re not independently wealthy, which I wasn’t, and you want to write, and you don’t want to take advances, what are you going to do? You could get a job, a real job, teaching at a university, working for the World Bank, but with very few exceptions, that doesn’t fit with writing. And that’s why, if you look at the biographies of writers, many, many, many used to work on farms or dishwashing. I’ve done
a million things like that. When you do a job, you don’t want one that makes you anxious. It will take your attention away from what you’re really doing. Take preferably a physical job, so that you don’t have to worry about it.
I couldn’t really make a living, a decent living, enough to not do that until I was 33, and that’s why I have a deep acquaintance with the minimum wage. And below. And why, as a conservative, I am for a high minimum wage. Because I have had lunches with people who think that the minimum wage depresses employment among black youth, and it does this and it does that. And then we finish the lunch and they pay the bill, and I say, “Do you realize that this lunch that we had is the same amount that a family of four is going to have to use to pay their rent, their food, their insurance, their clothing, their everything, for a week. It’s just not possible to do. And what I would like to do is run a giant national experiment to see if in fact what they call a living wage is really not beneficial. And by the way, my conservative response is that I’m for a — I don’t like the words “living wage” because it sounds lefty — high wage for working families, what you would need to support a family. But the balance of that is I think that corporate taxation should be abolished. In other words, give the money directly to people who work hard. Instead of taking the money from the business and then filtering it through the horror of government programs, which is essentially giving it to social workers who live in Bethesda so they can drive their minivans and vote Democratic. Give them the money, so that they go and talk to the worker who is washing dishes, and they say, “Well, we want to help you, you see.” And it would be better to help them by taking the money from that minivan-driving social worker and giving it directly to the guy who is really working hard by washing dishes. That’s my program, which is hated by both conservatives and liberals.
DT: I can see that.
MH: But it makes sense, I think. You don’t have to judge, but it makes sense to me. You know, we relieve businesses of this taxation, and take away from the terribly inefficient filtering programs of government, and then you guarantee it for people who do work, who work very hard at very unpleasant jobs, that they will have an honorable living.
DT: It reminds me about another debate among conservatives, about immigration. From the business side we hear, “There are all these jobs that Americans don’t do.” Then the other side says, “Well, if you offered higher wages, there would probably be a lot of people who would.”
MH: I’m not about to begin to name any names or institutions, but people’s position on immigration, once they get “sophisticated,” and they rise to the higher levels of commentary or government, it’s usually determined solely by economics. And not by anything else. My position is simple, and it’s that, first, every sovereign country has the right to control its borders, and should. The idea that anyone would sneak over our borders without proper documentation to me is absolutely abhorrent. Absolutely abhorrent. I wouldn’t dream of trying to sneak into Switzerland, or Russia, or Denmark. I wouldn’t do that. If I’m going to go to a country, I’d go in properly. Even if I had economic necessity, I might want to go over, but that’s when they can say, “No, you’ve got to stop. You can’t.” So we should have absolute control over our borders. If we want cheap labor to depress wages and disempower the unions, then we could have guest workers. But we have to face that issue. What is it that we want to do? Rather than not facing it, and having porous borders, and the effect is that it disempowers the unions. I mostly don’t like unions. Historically, there were some that were very excellent. But these days, they’re very corrupt. The ones I’ve been forced to be a member of never did anything for me except take my money, but that’s not the way to do it. It’s that horrible indirect stuff. Like, for example, denying a federal tax exemption to a school because the school has policies you don’t like. It’s a form of indirect control. Murderers get tax exemptions. A murderer in prison has to fill out his income tax forms. He’s allowed a particular tax exemption.
MH: I believe so. In prison, you fill out your income tax forms and there isn’t a special IRS code for prisoners. You can’t have your exemption. You can’t deduct . . . well, they don’t have much to deduct. But on the other hand, if you’re a school, and you displease the education bureaucracy, they take away your tax exemption.
DT: The unions collect dues from their members, and a great percentage of it goes to political activity, which isn’t necessarily helping the average worker.
MH: And when it’s government people who are mainly the beneficiaries, the rank and file of the unions, you have a monster that’s feeding itself. Terrible.
DT: In your last novel, you saw what some people wouldn’t really think of, the burdens of royal life. Do you see other forms of privilege as well as being a burden?
MH: Oh, of course. Yeah. I mean, like, “Duh.” For instance, once I had a paperback come out and the paperback company put a lot of money into the promotions — it was a big book of that season. And they paid a lot of money for it, and the more money they paid for it, the more money they have to make back. And so you know how they look at the book most of the time when you get your advance.
The guy who was the head of the company was a total psycho. One of these guys who threatens everybody. Sometimes you see in the movies, the common type in Hollywood, the intimidator. And it was dangerous for me to get involved, because I fight back — and especially in that situation, because he had so much money in the book, you see, so I didn’t want to have to punch him. But I was prepared to do it. We had a lunch date. It was him and his aides, there were about three or four people — the director of publicity, the editor who brought the book in, this and that. And they were terrified of him. He was so crazy, in fact, within two years or so he was dead. He had a heart attack and died. He was a young man. So he arranged for the lunch, and I was staying at a hotel in New York and he said, We’ll pick you up at your hotel, and then we’ll go to the restaurant. What restaurant? I asked. And the restaurant is two blocks, four blocks from the hotel, and I say, I can just meet you at the restaurant. And he says, No, no, we’ll pick you up. So I’m standing in front of the hotel, and a huge limousine shows up, and it’s this guy with his terrified, trembling acolytes in the limousine. So I get in the limousine, and there’s such traffic on Sixth Avenue that it took about 45 minutes to go four blocks to the restaurant in this stupid limousine. And I have always thought limousines make me dreadfully uncomfortable, just the way that suits do. When I wear a suit, I feel like ants and termites are crawling all over my body. It’s really, really uncomfortable. People put themselves in a kind of prison. It’s like the world of the embassies. You live in Washington, right? Have you gone to the embassy parties?
DT: I’ve gone to a couple.
MH: I think of it as death. Everyone wants to be in their top form, they want to show off status and position. It’s like pre-French Revolutionary social life. I had a period in my life, maybe a decade or so, in which I was involved in that kind of thing, associating with the elite of various segments of society. It always made me extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and change my clothes. The good part about that was getting home and changing into my regular clothes. Taking off the suit and the tie, taking off the tight shoes, and just relaxing. Being away from that stuff. It was stimulating, but I never liked it. I always felt it was a terrible, terrible burden.
For example, I was just telling my wife the other day, it was for A Soldier of the Great War, which at that time was my third, really my fourth home run, and so they treated me very well, the publisher. For that, you know, I was reviewed in the front page of every book review section in the United States, and the reviews were really, really superb. And everywhere I went I was interviewed, on television, radio, and the newspapers. When I went to Washington, I went to the White House and met the president. It was that world. So I was in New York, and I was making a huge amount of money for it, and I was writing pieces for the Journal which were influential, and I was giving speeches at places like the Carnegie Endowment and other such stuff. And they had a reception for me at the University Club. They would have had it at a bit more elegant club, not that it isn’t elegant, but a more prestigious one, it’s just that there were so many people. There were 600 people. And I was the center of attention and everything like that, and there was money, fame. If you asked someone on the street who I am, they won’t know. But there was money, fame, and even some power. I became somewhat influential politically. And I hated it. I hated it. I wanted it, and that’s how I got it. But I actually didn’t like it. It made me feel almost physically sick.
DT: Do you know why that is? Was it because you had to be “on” all the time?
MH: I suppose so. But there’s something insufficient in it. You know what it is? It’s like junk food. It’s addictive. That kind of thing is addictive. It makes you feel good at the moment, it gives you a surge. And then it’s like being a drug addict. When I look back, it was interesting, but very unfulfilling, actually.
DT: It reminds me of the first story in The Pacific, about the opera.
MH: Yes, that’s true. You know what I really like? Repeating what I said to my wife just yesterday, what I really like to do is to sit quietly and write. All that other stuff is a problem. Publication to reception to negotiation to . . . everything, it’s a problem. And I like to sit outside for long periods of time and just be in the tranquility of nature. That’s what I like. When I was 17, traveling in Europe, I ended up in a station in Switzerland, and I missed the connection. The train, believe it or not, in Switzerland was late. So, for some reason, I had to wait 17 hours in that station — and I sat in one position for 17 hours. And I just sat there, happy, happy as the proverbial clam. I was absolutely delighted just sitting there for 17 hours at a time. Watching the trains. And by the way, one of the things that happened was the train pulled up and everyone got out of the train. Everyone on that train was a midget. It was a circus train — circus of midgets. And they all went into a restaurant and were swarming around. It was really weird. It was like The Wizard of Oz or that movie that they made called Under the Rainbow. Did you ever see that?
DT: I vaguely remember it. I don’t think I saw it.
MH: Chevy Chase. But I enjoyed that very much. When I was twenty — I just remembered an incident — I was in Rome, and just wandering around, looking for a restaurant. I found the restaurant that day, and later on I kept on going back to it. Every time I’d go to Rome I’d go back to this restaurant, in a suburb of Rome, a place where tourists never go, it’s just where people live and it was a neighborhood restaurant, which was the best restaurant, and so every time I go back to Rome I visit it. And the day that I discovered that, I was just wandering around, in a suburb which is now too dangerous to go to. It’s really, really dangerous, but then it wasn’t, and I found a little fountain there, not anything fancy, and I sat there for eight or ten hours, looking at the fountain. I like that.
DT: That surprises me, because I hear about you jumping off trains and . . .
MH: Well I like that, too. I like that very much. I like jumping off trains.
DT: You seem like somebody with certainly a thirst for adventure.
MH: Yes. I haven’t done it in a while, that kind of thing, I’m too old for that now. But yes, that’s great, too. What I don’t like is the social stuff. And that’s my problem. And I know it — I know exactly why. It’s simple. I’ve known this for a long time. When I was less than two, my parents had an apartment. We lived on Central Park West. Way high up, beautiful, view of the park. And my father was in the film business, my mother was an actress. Their friends were actors, film people, bohemians, and those people really know how to party. They’d drink and they’d gamble and they’d have affairs. That’s what their life was like. And one night, I was awakened by a noise. There were maybe, in a room about the half the size of this one — you see that column there, go across, maybe one and a half times as big as that — there must have been seventy or eighty people. And they’d all been drinking. And you know what happens in a restaurant, people yell, because they have to, to be heard, and then the volume goes up, so everyone yells and it gets louder and louder until people are sitting there screaming at one another. That’s what happens in many restaurants, and it’s kind of good because it’s very easy, they’re all lubricated with alcohol. A tremendous amount of alcohol. And I wandered in, it must have been 1949, and someone said, “Look at him!” You know, it’s a cute baby. And they picked me up and they passed me from person to person. And everyone wanted to hold the baby. It terrified me so much that I have never gotten over it. Never. Not ever. So, except for work, when it’s required, I have never been to a party. Never in my life.
DT: It’s interesting because I had thought of you — they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive —as really interested in people. There was a line I really like in one of the stories in The Pacific where you said that there is much more to be learned by staring at a person’s face than in figuring out how things work, which I really liked because most of my favorite painters are known for their portraits.
MH: One-to-one. Or one-to-two. People get in a group, and something terrible happens. Oh, I enjoyed being in the Army, the esprit de corps. I’ve been in groups for work, but social situations, I just can’t do it. I’ve never been to a party. For instance, we’ve lived here for going on nine years now, and we went to someone’s house for dinner one time, and we were never invited again. My wife is like that too. She’s exactly like that. It’s extremely uncomfortable for me. I’ll do it for work because it’s important, it’s my obligation.
DT: So how did you end up in the army?
MH: I went to Israel, first in ’67. Israel was very informal then. You can hardly imagine what it was like. Israelis today have no idea, the young ones, they’re not old enough. The informality was astounding, the flexibility — and it’s why they were able to do what they did. But, I just got off the boat and I started hitchhiking. And I can remember the sequence, I know exactly how it happened. I got picked up by a guy driving a motorcycle and I rode in the sidecar. And he went off to a settlement, this kibbutz where he worked, and he left me on the road. And the next thing to pick me up was a truck, an Air Force truck. I got in the back, and there were all these Air Force guys, they were all mechanics, and they were my age. I was 20; they were 20. And so we got along quite famously. They said, where are you from, that sort of thing, and they took me into their unit. So we went into Sinai, and I was in a sense in the Israeli Air Force, without being in the Israeli Air Force. Even in America, I stayed at Fort Belvoir, going on almost two weeks. I was in the American army, just as a guest. I wore fatigues, and I was like a soldier, but I wasn’t. So I had this as my introduction, and I came to Israel yet another time, during the War of Attrition, ’69 and ’70. And again I was taken in. There was a group called Nahal which is agriculture in the Army and I got in informally. By the time I went back in ’72, I went into the Army. Literally, for real. And then after the Army, I was accepted into a ground combat role in the Air Force.
DT: How did you decide to finally do that. You liked being around the people?
MH: No, it wasn’t that. It was that I felt that Israel was, and I still feel . . . In fact now I believe that Israel is very likely not to survive, it’s not going to last forever, and now there’s nothing that someone like me can do about it, in that it’s a threat of nuclear or biological or chemical attack. But then, that wasn’t the question, it was conventional. And so what I wanted to do was to put my two cents in, and help things along, in terms of conventional war. I didn’t want to see it destroyed. And that’s what I could help with, make my contribution. Also at that point, we were fighting the Russians and in the Air Force, what you’d hear on our radios was Russian. My cousin, who is a Russian, was a colonel in the Air Force. A MiG pilot, flying in Egypt at the same time. So it was an opportunity both as a Jew and to help Israel. And also, in terms of the Cold War, because — it’s on the record, it’s all over the place — I actually dodged the draft in Vietnam. I tried to join the Marine Corps when I got back. I wanted to be a pilot. I always wanted to be a pilot, I regretted that I hadn’t gone into the Army. A stupid decision. But I made that decision when I was in college. I wanted to go to Annapolis, to study at West Point, but then the Vietnam War came and I was against it. I thought it was wrong in terms of overall effect. And it may have turned out to have been right. It may have turned out to be one of the places we stopped them. I still am not sure — it might have been quicker, better — whatever it was, it was very harsh, brutal, and ugly. No one can ever really judge that. There are too many unknowns. But I do regret, and I’ve always regretted, that I didn’t actually go, because it wasn’t my decision. I should have gone when I was called, but I didn’t. I always wanted to be there. It was really stupid, the way we fought, and it certainly could’ve been fought in a different way. But that’s no excuse.
DT: Many of your stories take place in World War II. Why do you seem to be so interested in a war that was over before you were born?
MH: Because that’s the war that made our world. There’s no question about that. The history of all the years in which I will spend my life, every single one, that is the seminal event of the history that we will experience. And so I look back to that as one studying our history, it’s the same thing. And also, personally. You know, I was born in ’47. My father was in the war, my uncle too. On my mother’s side, God, lots of them, maybe five or six or seven in her family. A lot of kids, she was one of eight children. All her brothers were in the war, and then my father’s side in the extended family. When they came back from the war, they had to rent a hotel in order to have a reception and a party, there were so many returning soldiers. There were 32 of them. They plus their families took up a lot of space.
And then we had a long military tradition going back to the czarist times. I don’t know if you know this, but the Jews were taken into the army of the czar for 25 years. That was the draft, so if you were drafted you had to do 25 years. So people who really don’t know about this, who are uninformed about it, don’t understand how Israel had the martial ability it had. The Russian Jews were a race of warriors because of it. They took the kids when they were 8 years old. And they served 25 years. They tried to convert them and some of them did. Some of them were lost to their families, to the Jewish people. But others came back, and they were professional soldiers. In this house, I have a picture in one of our rooms of my mother’s father in his uniform in the army of the czar. There’s a picture on the credenza in the hall that you walked past of my cousin Robert who died in World War II. On the table there there’s a picture of my uncle in the U.S. Army in Cairo, with a swagger stick there. My father’s military stuff is very interesting, I could talk to you all day about it. We just had a long tradition of that. Everyone was in the war. In the town where I grew up, every kid’s father had been in the war. I used to go to the 4th of July parade when I was very little, and they would push Civil War veterans in their wheelchairs down the street heading the parade, and you were made to come and shake their hands. So I touched someone who fought in the American Civil War. And First World War veterans. Let’s say you were 18 in 1917, and I was five in 1952. The typical age of someone who fought in the First World War, when I was five years old, they were younger than I am now. Fifty-three was the average age. So the First World War guys were around, and the Second World War guys were young guys. Everything was always the war, the war, the war. And we had living in our house two French people. He had been in the First World War, and he and his wife and their son had been resisters in the Second World War. So they were tremendously influential.
DT: You must have had some good stories from them.
MH: La guerre, la guerre, everything la guerre. That’s how I grew up. So for me, it’s real. It’s not something in the past.
DT: You mentioned your parents were in the film business. I read somewhere that Ayn Rand convinced your mother to leave the Communist party.
MH: That’s right. By the way, I have never read anything that she wrote. And occasionally her followers will get in touch with me. They’re very nice. I always pronounced her name “Anne.” I know it isn’t that. I said to my father, “Who was that?” once. And he said, “We knew her, we knew her quite well.” And I said, “Was she a cult figure or something?” And he went, “She’s like this.” [makes a gesture indicating a very short person] She was the world’s biggest midget.
But she convinced my mother to leave the Communist party. She was a Communist, and my grandfather, the one who served in the army of the czar, was a Communist. I guess serving in the army of the czar would make anybody a Communist. But he was a Communist who didn’t know, because he came to America, the full horror of it. And so my mother grew up in that tradition, and she was an actress, who among other things was in the Group Theater, which was sort of like an agitprop. It was one of the great American theatre projects if you like that kind of play. You know, Waiting for Lefty, Rocket to the Moon. So the circle she was in was all Communists. She doesn’t know anything, she didn’t even get past eighth grade. She was apprenticed to a Shakespeare company. So she had no basis from which to judge. She just sort of followed the people around her. She was in a cell in Hollywood. She wasn’t educated, she was very primitive in that respect. Really, really primitive. She was like a peasant. Although she knew practically all of Shakespeare by heart. She spoke beautifully. When she was young she went to a Shakespeare company run by an Englishman named Reginald Goode who trained people at a very young age. She was 11 when she left the family to be a Shakespearean actress in the classical sense. She knew her Shakespeare, and she knew her Greek tragedy. But that’s about it. Otherwise she was a peasant, who thought that thunder was when clouds bumped together and electricity came through holes in the wires. She was uneducated but she had a great imagination. So, yes, she left the Communist party because of that.
And by the way, when I was a freshman at Harvard, the first demonstration that I saw was one guy who was carrying a sign protesting. So I stopped and I talked to him, and he told me about how awful America was and everything like that. His case was that his father had been one of the members of the Hollywood Ten, and he had been forced to relocate to the south of France and write his screenplays under a pseudonym. And he says, “Well, it wasn’t right. He was completely innocent.” But the parents lied to their children. They didn’t tell their children. And I said “Well actually, he was a Communist. It was legal to be a Communist. But he should have said so. Or, even if he shouldn’t have said so, your telling me that he was not a Communist does not change the fact that was a Communist.” So he looked at me like he had found a lunatic Red-baiter. Right? “How do you know?” I said, “Because my mother was in his cell.”
And she was in the cell of a lot of those people. And most of the Hollywood Ten, who were supposedly not, were in fact in her cell. And yet she was always, to the extent that someone can be a leftist who was really wild in her thinking, she was pretty much a leftist. Although socially, she was probably like a conservative Republican at this point. That happens, you know. See, you’re in your twenties, you haven’t watched this, but Democrats, if they stayed still, would be Republicans today. A lot of them do. Even I started out as a Democrat, I voted for Hubert Humphrey in ’68. That was the last time I voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Although in ’72 I didn’t get a chance to vote because of the war.
DT: So how did you become a conservative? Was it like the experience of many people who find they become more conservative as they get older?
MH: The more I learn . . . and now, when I say this, liberals often write in, and they say, “Well, I have a Ph.D. in East Asian whatever.” There’s an expression in Yiddish, which is “der gelernte naar” — a “learned fool.” You can know a great deal, you can have a Ph.D., and you can still be a total idiot. It’s not a question so much of what you know, but how you know it. How you know it, how honest it is, what you use it for, whether it’s something that you use to make your living, to gain acceptance in a group, to look good, whatever — but whether you know something because you have proof, because you’ve experienced it and tested it and it’s not so easy, necessarily, and it’s not because you’ve been pushed to believe it because of social pressure. And when I say the more I learn, I don’t mean the more degrees I got. I mean the more I really learn about how the world works. And about human nature. That’s what I mean. And I have a particular dislike of human pride. And if you think that you can engineer outcomes, that’s a manifestation of pride. Among other things, it’s impractical. It just doesn’t work. The world doesn’t work that way.
So what you want to do is pull back and let nature take its course, as benevolently as possible and interfere as little as possible in other people’s lives and the way things work, instead of trying to beat people into roles that you want to put them into. That’s what the left is always doing. They have an ideal, and they want people to conform to it. When people don’t conform to it, they end up being beaten into the mold. And beaten sometimes hard enough so that if they don’t fit, then they kill them. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union and China.
DT: Do you think the right in some ways does that as well?
MH: Everybody, everybody does it.
DT: What I’m thinking of specifically is thinking that we can change an entire civilization.
MH: I’m really on record about that one. Henry Hyde invited me to speak, and I went up to Washington to one of the House office buildings and there was a lunch. And I got up in front of the lunch, and it was covered on C-SPAN, and this was before we actually debated Iraq, and I gave a speech that lasted 45 minutes or an hour, followed by a long question period. And one of the questions was about the democracy initiative, about changing Iraq into a democracy, and I am on record as saying — I don’t quite remember exactly, but I said more or less — I think it’s insane. I emphasize it like that, because among other things, if you count intensive language courses I took there in the summer as preparation, I spent almost three years in graduate school at Harvard in Middle Eastern Studies learning about Middle Eastern history, Arabic. And it was very clear to me, from the very beginning, that it’s impossible. If you know anything about Islamic civilization, or about the contemporary Middle East, about the sociology and the anthropology of the people who live there, and their recent history, and their religion, and their motivation and everything, then you realize that it’s not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen. And even if it were going to happen, it certainly wouldn’t happen with 125,000 soldiers who are also at the same time fighting an insurgency and trying to bring electricity to the capital, and make water projects, rebuild schools, and protect themselves, and cook and clean, and run the convoys, and all that kind of stuff. It’s the same ratio of police to population as the city of New York. Imagine if the police in New York City were at the end of an 8,000-mile supply chain and didn’t have Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds. They had to bring in all their food and cook it, and had to protect themselves in a camp, didn’t speak the language, weren’t familiar with the culture of the city, and didn’t even know the geography of the city, and were facing a population that is armed to the teeth, with machine guns, artillery shells, mines, rocket-propelled grenades, and other such things. And who hated them viciously, I don’t think they would get very far. It was just a crazy enterprise and the only reason that it happened is the people who embarked upon it knew absolutely nothing about the reality of the region which they were entering.
Even if it could be done, I don’t think it’s a desirable goal. Particularly as a Jew, I don’t like missionary work. I’ve had it focused on me, and I don’t like it. Let people be what they want to be. Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t explain what our point of view is. I would never back down from the American ideals, and we should make them known, whatever way we can, but the idea of actually embarking upon — and a crusade is a perfect word for it — a crusade to transform a culture, another culture . . . well, has it ever ended up in anything other than war? When we did it with Japan and Germany, it was after the war. They made on war on us, we hit them, and then we said, Okay, this is what we’re going to do. But the object of the war was not to — even though the propaganda may have said so — was not to change Japan and Germany into democracies. They both were democracies, to a large extent, already, but the object was to check them. My positions on this are complicated, but simple — and they’re all available.
DT: Have you found that your colleagues at places like the Wall Street Journal are unhappy with your criticism?
MH: Yes, I no longer am with the Journal.
DT: Is it because of this? Your thoughts on these issues?
MH: Pretty much, yes. And change of management, I guess. Bob Bartley died, and it was just like what happened to me at the New Yorker in 1992: You don’t fit. It changed. Either I didn’t and it did or I did and it didn’t, or we both did, or whatever, but it happened. And also, I wasn’t really there, not on a full-time basis. I was an occasional contributor.
DT: Have you found that you’ve had difficulties in the literary world as a conservative?
MH: Oh sure, yeah.
DT: So you’ve got problems on both sides.
MH: My friend Tom was walking down the street in New York and he met a woman that he knew, and she was carrying one of my books, I don’t remember which one it was. And he says, “Oh, I see that you have that book.” And she says, “Yes, it’s for my reading group.” And he says, “Do you like it?” And she says, “I haven’t read it, and I won’t.” So he says, “Why not?” Because she was carrying it. And she says, “Because he’s a rightwing twerp.” See? Now, I am right wing, and maybe I’m a twerp — I don’t know. But she didn’t even give the book a chance. A lot of people are like that. Twenty-five years ago, Chris Buckley wrote an article about me in the New York Times Book Review, which was essentially, “Oh, he’s a Republican.” Which I didn’t hide at all. In fact, he said the Times Book Review said that they’d like me to do an article on you, about your politics. Because I had written some pieces for the Times magazine — they’re up on the wall there. One is “Drawing the Line in Europe: The Case for Missile Deployment. And so the Times Book Review noticed that. So they said, “Hmm,” and they called Chris Buckley, because they knew that I would talk to him.
So he wrote the piece, and I knew when I was doing the interview with him that this would hit me in the head. In fact, I went to see my agent, and David Bradley — David Bradley is a writer, he wrote a book called The Chaneysville Incident, a great guy, he’s another client — he came out, and he said, “Everyone’s mad at you.” And I said, “Oh really?” and he said, “Yup,” and he said, pointing at my agent, “You’re in real trouble now.” So I went up to her and she said to me, “You’ll never win a prize again.” That was 1983. And just before that, I had been nominated for and won lots and lots of prizes. And since that time, with a few exceptions, little ones, I haven’t even been nominated. Certainly none of the bigger prizes. And that includes Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War — not even a single nomination.
In Antproof Case, there’s a whole little riff about how Oscar Progresso is demoted in his firm. He starts off with an office with fresh flowers every day, and lunch in the executive dining room with salmon and that kind of stuff. And they take it away piece by piece until finally he’s in a broom closet with no windows and they take away the light bulb. And from Rembrandt and Impressionist paintings on the wall, he ends up with a Woolworth’s glass-framed picture of one of those dome-topped scenic railroad cars that was taken from the pages of an old National Geographic. And it’s cracked. And the plant is Indian pipes, they don’t have chlorophyll. That’s essentially what the Times Book Review has been doing, from spectacular reviews on the front page to good reviews on the second page to bad reviews deeper in. And then, eventually, in the process of making you a non-person, which is what it’s all about, eventually, they won’t even review it. It will be a little paragraph this big, and then a line, and then they won’t even review it. It’s just like Oscar Progresso being cut off gradually. But I was aware of this 25 years ago, or more, I knew the process, and I had to make a decision. Do I shut up or do I simply act as if it weren’t that way? And I thought that I could never live with myself if I shut up. I know plenty of people who I wouldn’t ever give away who are actually conservatives but who live in deathly fear, so they’re in the closet. It’s amazing. It’s really astounding. I say, “How can you survive?” They say, they don’t know.
Interviewer Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of DOUBLETHINK and an arts and entertainment writer at The Washington Times. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.