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Interview: George Lerner

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

As a television producer across the globe for CNN, PBS, and other media outlets, George Lerner has to keep to thirty frames per second (the standard frame rate for video) so that the images can be comfortably viewed by human eyes. But there was a limit to the stories he could tell as a journalist. He explained to Jewish Book Council in a Skype interview from his Brooklyn home that “the questions that appealed to me most centrally I couldn't answer in journalism.” He made the analogy of a deep-sea diver, that to see the “corals and the deep sea fish in their habitat” he had to dive deep down and that he was “getting closer to the characters than if I were writing a history.” 

His first novel, The Ambassadors, is about the Shoah, centrally, and about how an understanding of what it means in today’s world can lead Jews to help victims of genocide in Africa. There is humor and delight too, in The Ambassadors, a work anchored by three central characters with professional connections to Africa. The father, an arms and refugee smuggler, goes into his line of work after being stationed near Buchenwald after World War II; he goes to Goma, Zaire in fall 1996 to give arms to a beleaguered people decimated by genocide. The mother, a professor, arrived alone at age six in the U.S. as a child from Lodz; she has spent her whole career researching the roots of human language but is unable to participate in a dig in Ethiopia that yields a find similar to the “Lucy” skeleton because of risks her husband has posed to the anthropological project with his interests in persuading the reigning regime to let Jews out. The son, who grows and deals pot, when not high, manages a band he has renamed the “African Refugee Mega Stars” from the less catchy “Africa Rumba Express” and finds a purpose in getting Cuban-inspired African music out to the world. 

The cast of minor characters is similarly delightfully quirky and varied, with a beautiful African doctor conflicted about her responsibilities; a young Russian-Israeli who has tattooed his war exploits on his arm and is happy to use his stories to illustrate anything that will win points with his audience; a procurer in Brooklyn able to arrange anything – from the home number of Manhattan’s best oncologist to Hasidische home care nurses – with a phone call. And one can’t forget the inanimate characters: the mother’s Brooklyn brownstone where much of the U.S. action of the novel is set, and, at its heart, the Steinway piano that no one in the family plays but that sits in the center of the living room—Jacob’s proudest acquisition from his time in Germany. The book eventually brings all of these elements together when the son’s musicians play an “Africanized version of a klezmer classic” at a party for the mother’s culminating conference on the origins of language. The musician Delacroix, whose day job is translating testimonies from war crimes victims, tells the mother, “To celebrate tonight, we have learned to interpret the ballads traditional to your people.”

This is the loveliness of The Ambassadors, that the interpretation of how Jewish values and morals from the past can exist in the modern world, where Africa is as much a way this family connects as the Shoah is. Below you'l find excerpts from an interview with the talented debut novelist and native New Yorker, George Lerner.

Beth Kissileff: How did you get the idea to have Jewish ideas apply to contemporary events like the African genocides in the Congo?

George Lerner: I wrote a novel that dealt in themes of the Shoah, seventy years after my two great grandmothers were murdered in the Shoah; for me, I needed to tell a story in a different way. A story that both showed the essential core and teachings of the Shoah and reexamined them at the same time.

The questions, the moral questions, are not my idea in the sense that others had come up with this analogy.

BK: You have a variety of characters, from all over the spectrum. Can you talk about that?

GL: My Jewish world has a great diversity of Jewish experience, belief, practice. And sensibility. I see those as all integrated, and that is what I tried to show in the novel.

I was seeking a kind of cultural, esthetic, and moral engagement, and discussion among my characters. It was very important to me to have that going on. There are those who survived the Shoah with absolute faith, and those with no faith. Not a clash or confrontation so much as a conversation. That conversation on all levels is what was firing me in this novel.

BK: Were there elements from your own life?

GL: My father was a U.S. Army lieutenant in World War II and I heard stories of deNazification, of his visit to Buchenwald, about Bavaria and the postwar period. We have a Steinway [imported from Germany], sitting in my parents’ house.

BK: Is the war novel a cliché?

GL: It is a cliché to write about going to war zones in Africa to learn about ourselves. I wanted to write a different novel. Jacob Furman is an actor, he is committing acts, doing things that are morally ambiguous. He thinks they are clear and they are not absolutely clear. Whether they are right or wrong is up to the readers. I am very conscious of not wanting to lead, so that a character and positions could be argued.

The world is a complex place. The African Mega Stars can play klezmer, and be the inheritors of Jacob’s Galicianer tradition. They can learn “ kol ha olam kulo” [All the world is a narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid], as can genocidal killers in a refugee camp.

BK: How did your TV training help as a writer? What are the challenges?

GL: It is a great question. One of the things we need to think about in television is ‘how are you going to show this?’ We need to think about what scenes provide texture and nuance and help reveal characters. More than what they say, what they do, and how to show them doing it. In a sense that is a kind of novelistic training.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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