Frequently Asked Questions
Unlike some of your other books, American Nonsensical is firmly rooted in the present day. What inspired you to write a book so current and politically charged as American Nonsensical?
As often happens for me, American Nonsensical grew from my musings about unusual people and beliefs. Skulls built into the architecture of old churches fascinate me, religions that use rattlesnakes in their ceremonies—that kind of thing. I ran into a dead end with the snake thing. Then, Sarah Lamb came to me, a woman so delusional she’d attribute Christ-like abilities to her son.
While these oddities buzzed around in my head, the world around me was buzzing too. Covid-19 shuttered us in place. Some people cringed, while others decided it was no big deal. A public health emergency became a political football. Shocking!
Conspiracy theories ran rampant. People fervently believed the wildest ones! Nothing was off the table, no matter how weird. Sarah Lamb—just your ordinary soccer mom!
As the 2020 election neared, those theories and American politics amped up to a critical point, setting brother against brother, friend against friend. Each wounded relationship, a small tragedy, as, on a grand scale, America democracy seemed to hang in the balance.
As I implied in my sub-title, you can see this as a farce, or a tragedy, or both. As my father used to say, “You have to either laugh or cry.” What could never have been imagined in the past is sadly (or comically) coming true.
Why have you written such a wide variety of books, why not stick to one genre?
I guess I’ve never been comfortable doing the same thing again and again; hence my multiple careers over the years. Every new career, every travel adventure is a journey. So is every new book read and every new book written.
So my experience of writing is much like the reader’s experience, imagining what it would be like to inhabit a different place, a different era, another set of beliefs, an unusual mind. A couple of times I’ve begun by inventing unorthodox characters. One novel (that I didn’t finish) featured a white witch (wiccan). I did my best to figure out what she might believe and feel. (Marguerite and I had met a fascinating white witch in Basque country, and later one moved in next-door to us in California.)
How do you select a topic/story-line?
Some stories reach out and find me. When my wife and I took a year away and traveled to Europe with our cat, it was natural to write about it. While there, in Toledo, Spain, the history grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Several years later Soul of Toledo was born.
I have no idea how Melody and Wendell wormed their way into my consciousness. That was one of those times when I chose a couple of strange characters and released them into my head to see what they’d do. The two of them (and a few FBI agents) wrote my book, The Gentle Bomber’s Melody, as I helplessly recorded their tale.
What brought you to Carlos?
Carlos Crosses the Line evolved from curiosity about the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican workers into the US legally between 1942 and 1964 (established to provide needed workers to the US during World War II).
I knew a person whose grandfather came to the US that way. I visited an exhibit about it at California State University and started reading. A character appeared, the birth of an idea, a man who’d been coming to the US legally under the program until it was abolished.
What should he do when it’s no longer legal to come? What would motivate him to break the law? Now that I was in the 1960s, how could I resist 1967-68, a period full of chaos (much like today, but that’s another story)? It was an era of draft dodging, free love, and disdain for authority—which brought me to beliefs and moral choices. What should Carlos believe? Should he accept what his culture taught him or go another way?
In your book, The Gentle Bomber’s Melody, why Gentle?
I do my best to be in my characters’ thoughts, which means I can’t judge them. My bomber, Wendell, had to be gentle for two reasons: First, it makes him quirky, and quirky can be fun. Second, if Wendell had been violent, it would have been hard not to condemn him. I didn’t want to dislike one of my star characters.
You say you don’t like to judge your characters, but what about Carlos?
There’s quite a bit to dislike with Carlos and some of the other characters in Carlos Crosses the Line. But this was one of those cases when I created a character, put him in a situation and let him lead me.
There’s a point in the book when he thinks of himself as “a natural man, the way God made me.” What would a natural man do when confronted with temptations and moral questions? There were a number of ways Carlos could have reacted, and people will question his choices. I’ll leave it for the reader to decide if he deserves the big E for Evil.
Soul of Toledo is a serious historical novel. What got you interested in this period? How difficult was the research?
My wife, Marguerite, and I were traveling in Europe with our cat. Toledo, Spain is a magical city crafted by Muslim, Jew and Christian. There had been a marvelous symbiosis between these three peoples- Jewish craftsmen and translators, Muslim artisans and architects, Catholic Kings who cultivated learning and culture. At some point it fell apart, culminating in the Inquisition, then the expulsions of Jews and Muslims. I kept asking myself how such a tragedy occurred. The question became my quest, and the quest grew into my novel.
Soul of Toledo, is based on a number of sources, especially Benzion Netanyahu’s 1400 page history of the period, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. Benzion Netanyahu was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s father and an acclaimed scholar. In addition to extensive reading I arranged to study for several days with two professors in Spain. After their lectures, we toured Toledo and Segovia, together on foot visiting the old Jewish and Muslim quarters in Toledo and a few of the old palaces (some in ruins) where historical events took place.
You traveled with your cat in Europe. Really?
In my book, A Year of Sundays, there’s a chapter titled- Felicia Had Always Wanted to Go to Europe, and here’s a quote:
“Felicia never said much about it, but we could tell by those subtle things: the way she paced the floor, the pleading looks she cast with golden eyes as we packed our bags before trips, her obsession with sleeping in suitcases, the way she turned her back on us and pouted after we returned from vacations. “But you wouldn’t like it,” we told her. “The flight is a pain, and you couldn’t really see anything.” ‘Try me,’ she answered silently as she lay a champagne-colored cheek in my hand.
“Then it came time for the grand journey that we’d discussed for years, our year in Europe. As we planned, Felicia listened eagerly to our discussions, laid for hours on my lap as I read travel magazines to Marguerite. Her furry face looked up at me, and she seemed to ask, ‘It’s my turn now, right?’
“Marguerite and I pondered the question, but not for long. Felicia was sixteen, an old, mellow cat, our constant companion at home. How could we leave her in California and maybe never see her again?”
Our motivation of course was that we couldn’t bear to be away from Felicia so long. It turned out that she was the perfect traveling cat, very mellow. She really helped ease our feelings of homesickness.
A big part of A Year of Sundays has to do with Marguerite’s blindness. People might ask, what does a blind person get out of travel?
Here’s what Marguerite says: “Some sighted people come back from Europe with lots of pictures and visual images but not many memories to relate. Others travel with all their senses; they know that travel is about the whole experience, the people you meet most of all.
“In the first month of our adventure, Ed told me about all the buildings, the gardens and statues in Paris, but he really wanted to find sensations for me. We went to concerts, spice markets and flower markets… Most of the concerts were free, so was listening to the people speak their unique blend of languages and the scents of flowers, spices and cheeses. And of course there was the food, which was so varied and wonderful. We visited the exhibit for the blind at the Musée D’Orsay. I loved feeling the statues, but it was the kindness of the people, who opened the exhibit on a day when it was closed, that really stands out in my memory.
“My favorite was the monkey park in Holland. When we first sat down, we wondered if it would be a monkey no-show. Then we heard sounds up in the trees, hundreds of monkeys scurrying toward us making high-pitched monkey noises. They scampered around us, and I asked Ed to pick one up for me. There was no way he was about to grab one. Then one jumped on my lap to take food from me. He had such tiny, rubbery fingers. I was thrilled, and then another one jumped on my shoulder… Later, when the food ran out, the monkeys climbed back into the trees. They lost interest in the people, but Ed told me they were looking at my white cane. I put it against the tree, and two of them climbed onto it, like little tightrope walkers. I became the Pied Piper of the monkey park. The kids gathered around, all wanting to have the cane so they could be in charge of the monkeys…”
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