Jay Neuge­boren is the author of 20 books, includ­ing two prize win­ning nov­els, two prize-win­ning non-fic­tion books, and four col­lec­tions of award-win­ning sto­ries. His most recent books are The Amer­i­can Sun & Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny (March 2013) and The Oth­er Side of the World (Decem­ber 2012). He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Although my nov­el, The Amer­i­can Sun & Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny, is set in the silent film era — it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jer­sey, where a a Jew­ish fam­i­ly that makes one and two reel (silent) films is mak­ing a new film on a frozen lake — its ori­gins may lie in the spo­ken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a nov­el about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the nov­el is inspired not by my love of film, but by my child­hood love of lis­ten­ing to sto­ries on the radio.

Dur­ing my years in high school, in Brook­lyn in the ear­ly fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio sta­tion, WNYE-FM, reg­u­lar­ly broad­cast radio pro­grams into ele­men­tary, junior high, and high school class­rooms. And dur­ing those years I was a child/​teenage actor at the radio sta­tion. I played some won­der­ful parts — Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lin­coln, et al — and what the direc­tor of the sta­tion, Mar­jorie Knud­sen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me through­out my life. The most impor­tant ele­ment an actor has at his or her com­mand for cre­at­ing char­ac­ter, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sen­tences, or after a par­tic­u­lar phrase, or in the mid­dle of a word — this, she said, is what makes lis­ten­ers pay atten­tion so that they can, in their imag­i­na­tions, trans­form what they hear — and do not hear — into cred­i­ble char­ac­ters and scenes. The mys­tery of char­ac­ter — and the essence of what made lis­ten­ers want to know what-hap­pens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.

Here, then, from the first page of The Amer­i­can Sun & Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who con­jures up the sto­ries that his fam­i­ly turns into movies:

I could make a sto­ry out of any­thing back then — a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mir­ror, a but­ton, a win­dow, a wall — and for every sto­ry I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about — one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most pre­cious mem­o­ries and pictures.

What Joey is doing, I now real­ize (I didn’t see or under­stand this when I was writ­ing the nov­el, which is told in his voice), is try­ing to con­jure up the seen from the unseen — just as, when lis­ten­ing to the radio as a boy, I con­jured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like view­ers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen — the mys­ter­ies and com­plex­i­ties of char­ac­ter — from the seen. View­ers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feel­ings, not from words char­ac­ters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatch­es of dia­logue were pro­ject­ed onto the screen), but from expres­sions and ges­tures the char­ac­ters made — from close­ups of eyes, for exam­ple — that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dra­mas, and silent films, the great­est source of mys­tery and pow­er — of our attach­ment and inter­est in fic­tion­al char­ac­ters — resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.

In The Amer­i­can Sun & Wind Mov­ing Pic­ture Com­pa­ny, Joey is forced into exile, and we fol­low his cross-coun­try adven­tures in both time and space — from New Jer­sey to Wis­con­sin to Cal­i­for­nia, and from 1915 to 1930. He arrives in Los Ange­les at a time when silent movies are giv­ing way to talkies,’ and where his uncle Karl, who direct­ed the family’s movies when Joey was a boy, has become a major pro­duc­er and direc­tor in Hol­ly­wood. In the novel’s final chap­ter, Joey and Joey and Karl sit on a moun­tain top and look down at a desert that has been the set­ting for a great bat­tle the day before for the uncle’s cast-of-thouands pro­duc­tion of Solomon and the Queen of She­ba. And what do these two men do when they look down upon a scene of hor­rif­ic dev­as­ta­tion? It is the end of the Sab­bath, and they talk about the ser­mon they heard in syn­a­gogue that morn­ing — they talk about King David and King Solomon, and about God’s ways, and about why it is the rab­bis say that on the day the Tem­ple was destroyed, the Mes­si­ah was born.

Vis­it Jay Neuge­boren’s offi­cial web­site here.

Jay Neuge­boren is the author of nine­teen books, includ­ing two prize-win­ning nov­els (The Stolen Jew, Before My Life Began), two award-win­ning books of non­fic­tion (Imag­in­ing Robert, Trans­form­ing Mad­ness), and four col­lec­tions of award-win­ning stories.