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 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.