by Beth Kissileff

I recent­ly had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak with vet­er­an author Jay Neuge­boren by phone for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. This was appro­pri­ate because the abil­i­ty to con­jure up the seen from the unseen” is the premise of his newest book, The Amer­i­can Sun and Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny, about a fam­i­ly mak­ing motion pic­tures in the years from 1915 to 1930; a prof­fered Skype inter­view wouldn’t have worked as well for a dis­cus­sion of the work of this author who was a child and teen radio actor at the New York Board of Education’s radio sta­tion, WNYE-FM, in the Brook­lyn of his youth. As in this newest nov­el, Neugeboren’s twen­ti­eth book, the author’s voice and sto­ry­telling abil­i­ty car­ried our con­ver­sa­tion. This is an abridged account of our discussion.

Beth Kissileff: Where do your sto­ries come from?

Jay Neuge­boren: The answer is — who knows? No par­tic­u­lar source. That’s a ques­tion I am always ask­ing. The sto­ries always seem to be there wait­ing for me, though some­times shroud­ed in mist and fog. 

I grew up in Brook­lyn dur­ing and after World War II, so some things are set in that milieu, and some­times things that have actu­al­ly hap­pened in my life become trans­formed into fic­tion. But beyond that, I have no answer. Just as Irv­ing Berlin made up new songs, and always seemed to have a new melody wait­ing, so with ideas and notions that are there for me, and even­tu­al­ly they become sto­ries. They are not full-blown at first, but I know enough to begin, and find out the rest while I write. For me, part of the process lies in solv­ing mys­ter­ies — in unlay­er­ing what is at first unknown to me.

In order to know about the lives of my char­ac­ters and their ances­tors, I had to cre­ate them.

In the ear­ly days of film — what we call silent films — they worked with­out scripts. There is a won­der­ful child­like won­der to that for me — a sense of let’s pre­tend.’ As in I’m a moth­er, you’re a father, I have a dog — or a barn — so let’s make a movie.’

BK: How much research did you do for this book? There is such a wealth of detail in the nov­el about so many aspects of the ear­ly movie mak­ing process and I won­der how much of it is based in fact. 

JN: I did not know a lot about the silent film era, and UMass-Amherst [where Neuge­boren taught for many years] has an exten­sive library on film. I spent six to eight months watch­ing movies and read­ing, lots. I read Ani­ta Loos, biogra­phies of D.W. Grif­fith and Buster Keaton, the 1001 Nights, Kevin Brownell (a film crit­ic). I did my home­work. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the tech­ni­cal aspects [of how films were made], and in the nov­el, for exam­ple, I make use of the fact that they edit­ed films in the cam­era, crank­ing back­wards and film­ing a scene again.

Like the prover­bial hem of the skirt, I hope all my research doesn’t show. I try to let the research — the detail — serve the story. 

BK: Since you are so fas­ci­nat­ed by the movie-mak­ing process why did you write this as a nov­el, not a screen­play, since you have writ­ten screen­plays too?

JN: The nov­el is my first love. I’ve writ­ten screen­plays on occa­sion, main­ly to get my kids through col­lege, but things come to me in their par­tic­u­lar forms or gen­res. This sto­ry said: I am a novel.”

A nov­el, for me, relies on my imag­i­na­tion to inspire your (the reader’s) imag­i­na­tion. It is not all there for you. My nov­els or my sto­ries come to me visu­al­ly. I use words — what else? — to trans­late the nov­el I see inside my head into words that I hope will cre­ate a movie inside your head. A movie can evoke feel­ings, thoughts, it is all there and hap­pen­ing, there is no con­trol over the images when you are watch­ing a movie. You are trans­port­ed for three hours to a world where you see real peo­ple. In a nov­el it is pri­vate — there’s only you, and words on pages. The land­scape is in your mind and in your feel­ings. I hope this nov­el does for oth­ers what sto­ries and nov­els did for me when I was a boy — I hope, that is, it will allow you to become lost in a world total­ly unlike the actu­al world we live in. 

I work hard to make the words evoke par­tic­u­lar images, thoughts, feel­ings, the mys­tery of relationships. 

The Amer­i­can & Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny is made up of six sec­tions — six sep­a­rate films, six wood­cuts — and I tried to pare every­thing down to essen­tials, to carve a book with words, and then to com­press, com­press, com­press — so that the effect is stark, and the scenes are as vivid as dreams. 

BK: What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

JN: I grew up at Shaare Torah syn­a­gogue in Brook­lyn and I would run the Sat­ur­day morn­ing ser­vices when I was in col­lege. One day the rab­bi, Joseph Miller, called me in. He asked me to con­sid­er the rab­binate, and said that he would see that I would be sup­port­ed finan­cial­ly. I thought about it, but I want­ed to be a writer. Being a pul­pit rab­bi and a writer is rough, though it can be done. My rab­bi from Northamp­ton [Mass­a­chu­setts, where Neuge­boren is a past pres­i­dent of Con­gre­ga­tion B’nai Israel], Phil Graubart, is a mar­velous writer. 

I didn’t feel a call­ing for it — it should be a call­ing, real­ly — the way writ­ing is for me. The rab­binate should be a call­ing, and not sim­ply a way to earn a living. 

BK: What helped you write this book?

JN: Joey’s voice. Once I found that, I was home free. 

BK: What do you take pride in as a writer?

JN: As a writer I am proud that if you took my last four books, and they didn’t have my name on them, I don’t think read­ers would know they were by the same author. The same with this nov­el. I think what I am mak­ing is an object that has a life and iden­ti­ty of its own, apart from me. 

There is noth­ing wrong with a writer who has a dis­tinct style in book after book, but I am not inter­est­ed in repeat­ing myself.

BK: Why do you write?

JN: I remain curi­ous about all the lives I can’t have — and about the lives of oth­ers, real and imag­ined, past and present, and how peo­ple came to be who they are … and who they might yet be. I am enchant­ed by the land­scape of possibility. 

Read more about Jay Neuge­boren here. 

Beth Kissileff is the edi­tor of Read­ing Gen­e­sis (Con­tin­u­um Books, 2013) an anthol­o­gy of aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing about Gen­e­sis. Her nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return is under con­sid­er­a­tion for pub­li­ca­tion and she is work­ing on a sec­ond nov­el and vol­ume of short stories.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundrais­ing and writ­ing grants to devel­op a pro­gram to assist rab­bis of all denom­i­na­tions with writ­ing and pub­lish­ing books. Kissileff is a rab­binic spouse and author of the nov­el Ques­tion­ing Return as well as edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Read­ing Gen­e­sis: Begin­ings.