By Fire, By Water

I just finished reading this terrific new novel by Mitchell James Kaplan.

We talk by phone today.

Luke: “Mitchell, when you were a child, did you want to be a novelist when you grew up?”

Mitchell: “Yes. Certainly from the age of 15 at the latest. Books were my refuge.”

Luke: “Refuge from what?”

Mitchell: “I grew up in the late ’60s, early ’70s. They were my refuge from a dysfunctional world. I think of fiction as a way of approximating truth, a way to try to find something beyond the dysfunction of the world that makes sense.”

Luke: “I heard someone say that art [well, pornography] is a solace from the frustrations of real life.”

“Where did you grow up?”

Mitchell: “My father lived in Beverly Hills. He was a cardiologist at UCLA. My mother lived in Munich, Germany. I went to high school at a boarding school near Santa Barbara called the Cate school. Then I went away to college at Yale. Then I lived in Paris for seven years.”

“Southern California never felt like home to me.”

Luke: “What has felt like home?”

Mitchell: “Hmm. I’ve had many places that have been homes…but I can’t say that any place in the world is really my home.”

Luke: “Except perhaps literature?”

Mitchell: “Yes. I must say, Luke, I wasn’t expecting this kind of question. Fine with me but I feel like I am revealing a lot about myself here. The interviews that I’ve had so far have not gone this direction but I know that you’re a special kind of guy.”

Luke: “Where were you in the social pecking order in high school?”

Mitchell: “I was outside of it completely. I got very good grades. I earned some respect from some people for that. I was very socially awkward. That’s another reason I could find comfort with books.”

Luke: “When you graduated Yale, what did you most want to accomplish with your life?”

Mitchell: “I wanted to be a writer.

“I went to France after college. I was living with a very powerful family, very much at the top of French industry and government. I lived in their slave’s quarters at the top of the building. It was a five-floor typical French apartment building. I lived at the top in the garret. My sinecure consisted of having breakfast with the kids and speaking English with them. They spoke English fluently. They had a chauffeur and a maid and everything else. They just wanted them to stay in practice. Each year they hired a Yale graduate and a Harvard graduate, not snobs or anything, and one of them had breakfast with the kids and one of them had lunch.

“I spent most of my time reading and trying to write a novel.

“There was a man I knew in college, I guess I’d call him a mentor, his name was William Styron. An author. He had been very kind to me and very interested in my ambitions when I was in college.

“One day I saw that William Styron was going to be on a book discussion program on French TV. I went to the studio and pretended that I belonged there. I walked right into the television studio with my briefcase and in it I had the manuscript of this book I had been typing. I sat through the show and watched him discuss Sophie’s Choice.

“Afterward, I went up to him and he greeted me and he agreed to read my first attempt at a novel. And he loved it. He sent me this beautiful letter, saying he didn’t know if this book would be published or not but that I write beautifully and I have the stuff of a novelist and he’s going to show it to his editor just in case. The editor did reject it. I was devastated. I still have that letter [from William Styron]. I needed it to continue with this dream though I did take a long detour working in the film industry.

“I think William Styron was responding to that I take immense pleasure in the manipulation of words.”

Luke: “Why did you spend so much time in the film industry?”

Mitchell: “I came back to America with my wife. We came to Los Angeles for my sister’s wedding. I didn’t have enough money to get back to France, which I considered my home.

“I just happened to know someone who knew someone who was just starting to make a movie called The Couch Trip. They hired me as a PA. The director, Michael Ritchie, and I hit it off and I ended up working for him for several years. I ended up working on screenplays. I sold several of my own. None were produced but we made some decent money. I learned a lot about dramaturgy and how to develop characters. The other stuff I thought I had learned earlier in my life about style stayed in the background.”

Luke: “There’s nothing like a screenplay to learn discipline and structure.”

“What’s the story behind your new novel?”

Mitchell: “I came up with the idea while living in Paris. I was working as a translator and struggling to get by. I had a pass to the largest library in the world. I had to go to some trouble to get the card so I felt so privileged that I spent a lot of time there reading whenever I could. I came across a list of the those who sailed with Columbus in 1492. Every name had where the person came from and what he did on board but there was one man who served no purpose at all on a sailing ship in the 15th Century — Luis De Torres. He was dead weight, which was a very uncommon thing in a crowded vessel. I asked why did Columbus bring this guy along? He was his translator. I did some more research. I looked at Columbus’s journals.

“I found out this guy spoke Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew and Spanish. So I asked myself, where did Columbus think he was going? He needed someone who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew? Two dead languages at the time. Then I eventually came to the realization that Columbus was going to paradise and leaving a world that was the opposite of paradise.

“No one had developed his voyage in this context in a work of fiction that I was aware of.”

“After 18 years in the film industry, my wife and I and our two kids lived in Big Bear Lake. We had a little private plane and I was flying down the hill when I needed to. I finally said to my wife, this career is not satisfying. It’s not really going anywhere. Who knows if I’ll sell another screenplay.

“I’d always wanted to be a novelist. I’d never wanted to work in the film industry. With my wife’s blessing, I set about to write this.

“The first draft was written from the point of view of Luis de Torres. Only after I completed that draft did I realize that he wasn’t the central character. His point of view was limited. The stage was much bigger than anything he could’ve experienced.

“Then I wrote a second draft with Luis de Santangel [chancellor of Aragon] as the main character. After that, it was just a process of refinement.”

Luke: “Was there any dramatic difference in being a Jew in any of the places you’ve lived?”

Mitchell: “Very much. I don’t relate well to the culture of Los Angeles. The people I knew placed so much importance on the type of car you drive, and whether you lived north of Sunset Blvd or south of Sunset Blvd, or north of Wilshire and south of Wilshire. A preoccupation with money and status. Maybe you’ve found a niche outside of that, but growing up as the son of a physician in Beverly Hills, I didn’t find that niche.”

Luke: “What was high school like?”

Mitchell: “It was an Episcopalian high school and we had to go to chapel three times a week. It was very uncomfortable. Not in terms of faith because at that point in my life, faith didn’t mean much to me at all but definitely in terms of not being in the club.”

Mitchell says he has mainly experienced anti-Semitism from Jews. “I didn’t have to define myself as Jewish in France because everyone else was busy doing it for me. France is a Catholic country as much as Israel is a Jewish country. Everyone [in France] wants to know what group you belong to.

“In the top echelon of French society, there’s a feeling that Jews can be visitors but they can never be members. I felt like I was an American in the 1930s where the Protestant establishment might have Jewish friends and advisers [but no members]. The Jews are there as guests.

“The French media has very biased reporting on the Middle East. One of the terms they use for Jews in France is Israelite. They consider it to be a euphemism. They think that calling someone a Jew is an insult. You’re an appointed ambassador of Israel whether you like it or not.

“The guy who invented the concept of denying the Holocaust was a French professor Robert Faurisson. I had very close friends in France who talked about him as though he were credible…and isn’t it true that we don’t really know the truth about the Holocaust. I didn’t come to blows with anybody… I learned to appreciate what was good in them and not just dismiss them even though I thought some of their ideas were crazy.”

Luke: “Do the French have a weakness for conspiracy theories? I remember a book in France that denied 9/11 was very popular in France.”

Mitchell: “The first book that came out saying that it was a Jewish conspiracy was a number one bestseller.”

Luke: “Did you think about a happy ending for your book?”

Mitchell: “I showed it to a friend of mine who’s a big shot Hollywood screenwriter and he just hated the ending. I didn’t even take that comment seriously. I was guided by history.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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