Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Q&A with Richard Kluger


Photo by Nicholas Lattimer



Richard Kluger is the author of the new novel Hamlets Children. He has been a journalist, a publishing executive, and an author of fiction and nonfiction. His other books include Simple Justice. He lives in Berkeley, California.


Q: What inspired you to write Hamlet’s Children?


A: As a child during the course of the Second World War, I would move pins stuck in cardboard-backed maps clipped from the newspaper and hung on my bedroom wall so I could chart the ever-shifting battle lines. My pliable young brain was forged on the crucible of that horrific conflict. I’ve lived long enough to celebrate that our species has somehow managed so far not to replicate history’s worst-ever manmade calamity.


Even though nobody in my immediate family was a war casualty, as a writer I always wanted to deal with that all-consuming conflagration. Given its scope and complexity, I came to see that my only practicable format was to try to tell the story on a small canvas that rendered the awful, day by day intensity of that war and how its participants were able to endure it.


Denmark, a small, peaceable nation, provided me with that backdrop. In my readings about the war, I learned that the Danes suffered less bloodshed and physical destruction than other conquered countries, largely by accepting a bargain with their hated German conquerors. They would be spared Nazi brutality so long as they passively fed and serviced the enemy’s massive war machine.


The Danes’ relative good fortune did not extend, however, to the toll taken on their collective soul. Denmark was perceived by many among the watching Allies as a de facto collaborator with Hitler’s onslaught against civilization. Fearful of resisting their tormentors at risk of instant and lethal mass reprisals, the anguished Danes could defy their captors only by sublimating their hatred – and, not incidentally, by steadfastly shielding their small Jewish population from the Nazis’ pathological anti-Semitism.


I felt that was a morally wrenching story worth telling. The result is Hamlet’s Children.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Hamlet’s Children coalesced in my mind and on paper and PC files over a period of 30 years even while working on many other books. I kept an ever-growing trove of notes as I read every book and article I could find about the Danes’ wartime experience, visited Denmark three times, and brought home material from the Danish resistance museum in Copenhagen.


One of the things that surprised me in the course of my research was that although Evangelical Lutheranism has long been the official state religion of Denmark– and Luther’s writings are filled with virulent anti-Semitism – the Danes over the centuries have seemed to be so little infected by that plague.


For well over a century before the outbreak of World War II, Danish values promoted steadily expanding social justice, equality, and tolerance as the national creed. That the Danes saved their small Jewish population from extermination toward the war’s end is one of history’s most admirable humanitarian acts.


Q: The actor Julianna Margulies said of the book, “I couldn’t put down this richly depicted story, full of beautifully defined characters, in which fiction and fact are seamlessly woven together by Richard Kluger.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between fiction and fact as you were writing the book?


A: I’m pleased – and grateful – that Ms. Margulies found my characters “beautifully defined” because they have long since become very real people, warts and all, inside my head.


As to your question, I don’t see fiction and fact as polar opposites. Fiction is an art form in which the introduction of “facts” (meaning specific and verifiably accurate pieces of information) is just one of a confluence of elements that artful storytellers use in fabricating their works.


Facts can enhance the illusion of verisimilitude and thus promote readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. But so, too, do authors’ mastery of language, calculated sequencing of events, psychological insight, wit, and unexpected departures from conformist lifestyles.


Authors use these tools and others to create distinct settings and populate them with a cast whose actions and emotions they manipulate in order to transport their readers – for a time, at least, and page by page – away from their often routinized, problematic lives.


Fiction’s task, I submit, is to probe the surface of facts and present what lurks or throbs below or behind them – not to freight their artistic flights with prosaic data as ballast. Art’s goal is to present myriad representations of deeper, more elusive truths than the casual observer manages.

In the case of historical fiction, in which the time, place, and contemporaneous population are of the essence and not mere backdrop, a dutiful author has a different obligation. The wide latitude to fictionalize should exclude permission to mess promiscuously with “fact” by altering or being unfaithful to documented circumstances.


When real-life personalities or events are referenced in works of fiction, their presence and actions ought to be at least plausible within the bounds of our documented collective intelligence, even if we lack certifiable evidence that the historical figures actually did or said or felt what is ascribed to them or that the events described really occurred.


Thus, a historical novelist may tell us that late in his first voyage to the New World, Columbus bit into the last of the hardtack biscuits on board and gagged on encountering several maggots. But a certifiable historical novelist cannot portray Columbus as having discovered America while captaining a PT-boat. Or Napoleon triumphing at Waterloo, or the Beatles serenading world leaders gathered to sign the Treaty of Versailles.


Anachronisms or the reversal of well recorded outcomes may be fun, but it’s not legitimate historical fiction. The game is to be inventive within the boundaries of actuality. In my novel, for example, one character works for a real Danish sound equipment company, which the book states steadfastly refused to supply its excellent products to help the German war effort – and this is a historically verifiable fact.


Facts such as those I include surrounding the rescue of the Danish Jews may provide an emotionally charged milieu in which a writer can deeply engage the reader. More often in artful fiction they serve as useful reference points to anchor the reader’s attention but are incidental to the story’s momentum.


In these cases, factual content ought to be as little visible or intrusive as possible; otherwise, the story becomes mired in exposition, and the reader, seeking diversion, not instruction, is likely to doze off or chuck the book with a yawn. And that’s a fact.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m at work on a novel tentatively titled The Gift Horse – about a highly educated, moderately well-off couple, the sort now often disdained as “elitists,” who suddenly find themselves the inheritors of a legally dubious fortune.


At once they face a profoundly stressful dilemma: renounce their windfall or enjoy the hell out of it in the lap of luxury but live with the ceaseless peril of having the source of their secret trove uncovered and winding up in the federal hoosegow for a very long stay.


It’s a story that asks whether rich people with troubles – whether or not they earned their wealth by merit or sweat (or both) – ever deserve the sympathy of those less fortunate (in other words, can loaded elitists, even if non-predators, suffer in ways at all comparable to what most of humanity has to endure?).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hamlet’s Children is being published as a paperback original to keep its price down. Please take advantage of this fabulous bargain by ordering a copy – or, better yet, several copies to give to friends – from your local bookstore or over the internet (print and e-book versions available). Many thanks for your consideration.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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