Zachary Lazar is the author most recently of the novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant. He also has written the novel Sway and the memoir Evening's Empire. He teaches at Tulane University, and he lives in New Orleans.
Q: Why did you decide to include Meyer Lansky as one of the main characters in your most recent novel?
A: My previous book, Evening’s Empire, was a nonfiction book about my father, who was murdered by two contract killers when I was six years old.
That story is very complicated, but it introduced me to the world of organized crime, and in particular the Jewish iteration of organized crime. I began to get more and more interested in the way Jewish gangsters have been represented.
They are often romanticized, or caricatured, in a way that obscures the reality of how violent they were. The idea of violent Jews is still surprising to people. Many Jews, at least American Jews, don't know how to process the information.
Since the book came out, I have met dozens of people who are eager to tell me that they had a relative who knew Meyer Lansky. It seems to them to be a "good story." I wanted to explore why exactly they would think it's a "good story."
Q: You include a quote from Lansky at the start of the book, “I’m not a kneeling Jew who comes to sing songs in your ears,” spoken to Senator Estes Kefauver. What about that quote made you want to include it?
A: I admire the chutzpah of Lansky saying that to Estes Kefauver. Who wouldn't admire it? Most Jewish boys in America are brought up to be diligent students, good citizens, to play it safe and go to law school or medical school or business school. How dull.
Lansky of course went in the completely opposite direction. He was a criminal. He was a badass. There is a romanticism in that, but there is also a very serious reality behind the romance, an ugly reality that in the end means dead bodies.
My book is an attempt to look at both sides of that reality, not only in Lansky's story but in the story of Jews in the modern era in general.
Q: How did you balance the history and the fiction in the novel, and what did you see as the right blend?
A: Everything I write is a long improvisation, which means a process of trial and error. I started with a very primitive idea, which was to somehow juxtapose the story of Meyer Lansky, a tough Jew of the modern era, with the story of King David, a tough Jew from the ancient era.
I knew that this would force me to say something about ancient and modern Israel, though I didn't know what, nor did I know what the novel's plot was going to be. It is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, what I ended up with. Either you like it or you don't, but it is exactly as it needs to be.
Q: How did you pick the book’s title?
A: The title is from a Bob Dylan song. The immigrant in that song is an old and bitter man who has led a difficult life, struggling to survive.
In doing what he needs to stay alive, he has had to toughen himself, harden himself, and this means he has become closed off to other people, isolated. That's the price of survival.
This kind of dynamic is applicable to many characters in my novel, including Meyer Lansky (and the biblical David). It is their tragic element.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently published a long essay about a passion play that was staged at Angola Prison, the state penitentiary here in Louisiana. I spent a week there with a photographer, Deborah Luster, and we have been back several times since.
My next novel is just getting started, but it has to do with the inmates I met there--their experience in prison and also the story of how they arrived there.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My next book is not going to have a Bob Dylan song for the title. At least I don't think so!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Zachary Lazar will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington DCJCC.