What inspired you to write Isaac: a modern fable?
The story of Isaac and Abraham is a compelling story that I must have dwelled upon a thousand times, and I doubt I’m alone in this. Of course there’s a multitude of interpretations. It’s a big topic. I didn’t tackle it until I developed sufficient naiveté to think I could do it justice. This took many years.
I once heard a rabbi say the story means God was teaching us not to sacrifice human beings. Clearly this is bullshit. There were a lot easier ways to teach this lesson, and if that was the message, it could have been much clearer, as are the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife. No wriggle room there.
Finally it occurred to me that if a superior power could send an angel and a ram up there to give the story a happy ending then that power could also have granted Isaac eternal youth. Then I knew I had a story. But I quickly realized Isaac would have to be mortal. Otherwise it’s a Superman story. Bullets, swords, falls from high places, etc. can kill my Isaac, and he knows it. But he won’t grow old or be afflicted by disease. Also, Isaac, though he stepped out of a bible story, has no more knowledge about where we came from, where we’re going, or what is our purpose here than anyone else. He’s just as baffled.
Did you base Lenny’s immortality on any existing Jewish folklore?
I’m a very poor source of existing Jewish folklore, but as far as I know, his immortality is based on nothing like that.
Have you had any experience in the “academic underclass” like Ruth?
I’ve had experience both as a privileged tenured brat and as a member of the stepped-upon “adjunct” lecturer proletariat. I gave up tenure to go off and work as an editorial writer in Seattle for a while. There are, of course, excellent, hard-working professors. Unfortunately, I ran into too many tenured creeps who were so immune from the consequences of their actions that they were basically spoiled children with facial hair. I once sat on a committee that had to adjudicate a grievance filed by a professor who was furious that his department chair tried to schedule him for more than two days a week. Honest. For this, he earned full-time salary.
I wanted to give Ruth, the novel’s co-protagonist, the opportunity to rise from lecturer hell, off the tenure track, to the top. Consequently, she gets a job at a think tank. Most of the professors I worked with would consider a think tank the very top because there are no students there.
Boxing is a motif in your work. What attracts you to the sport?
It’s a difficult sport that demands courage, grace, strength, agility, quickness, and conditioning. Other athletes tend to admire boxers. Fighters tend to be angry people who overcome their anger through the intense training and fights inside the ropes. That makes them strong, gentle people, for the most part — the epitome of gentlemen and gentlewomen. They’re likable. Also, I was bad at ball sports because I have no depth perception.
Can you tell us about any new upcoming projects?
I’m working on another novel. But I once tried to sell a joke to the Tonight Show, got a gentle rebuff, and later saw Carson do the joke. Consequently, I am a paranoid lunatic and don’t discuss my ideas until the work is sold.
Who are your favorite authors?
Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Heller come to mind. I also loved Updike’s “Rabbit” series and some of Philip Roth, mostly stuff he did later. He got better with age. I find that encouraging.
How does a writer survive in this economy?
The economics of it won’t work for most of us. You can’t even sell your soul to TV that easily now that they’ve replaced sitcoms and soaps with scripted ‘reality’ and gruesome ‘contest’ entertainment that pays writers miserably. Life is an unfair lottery. I try not to let it bother me. I wouldn’t trade my life with an investment banker whose mission is to own a more ridiculously expensive watch than the other investment bankers. I was in basic training with guys who were sent to Vietnam while I got orders for California. Some of those who shipped out never got a chance to come home and be shit upon. I was privileged to be shit upon with the rest of us.