Thursday, May 3, 2018

Q&A with David Hirshberg

David Hirshberg, photo by Alison Sheehy
David Hirshberg, the pseudonym for an entrepreneur and business executive, is the author of the new novel My Mother's Son, which takes place in Boston in the 1950s.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Mother’s Son, and for the family you describe in the book?

A: The idea for the novel has a lot to do with what I wanted to say. I thought long and hard about writing a book that would address really serious issues—immigration, political issues, the shenanigans that go on in business, the lies people say to each other, wars.

I thought if I wrote a book about that and set it in today’s time, it would be a big mistake. Somebody on the left would say I was on the right. Somebody on the right would say I was on the left. Even as fiction, somebody would say this is thinly veiled.

I was tremendously impressed with Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, about the 15th century war between France and England. But it was really about the First World War. It reflected things she believed were still in play in 1913-14.

I took a lesson from that. It wasn’t a distant mirror, but if I could write about an era with similarities to the last few years, it would be interesting, and would free me up from the talking heads climate of somebody attacking [the book].

Q: So why the 1950s? Why Boston? And how did you research the book?

A: The reason I ended up focusing on 1952 is that I was searching for things—if the 1920s and ‘30s were too far in the past, the 1980s and ‘90s were too close. I looked to the 1950s. I did some homework, looking for the issues of immigration, politics, business, war, and sports. They were all in turmoil. In 1952, all these things were major issues, centered in Boston.

First, there was a polio epidemic. This was before the Salk and Sabin vaccines. It was a very serious issue. That was a distant mirror for AIDS.

Second, there was a vicious Senate campaign between John Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge was the scion of a very WASPy family, and John Kennedy was the grandson of Irish immigrants and was Catholic. The idea that Massachusetts could have a Catholic senator was appalling to a lot of people. It was a signal that if Kennedy won the times would be changing.

You can look at the Obama campaign--the campaign against Obama, against Senator Clinton, they were pretty vicious. I was trying to find similarities.

The next one was war. The Korean War was raging. Most people don’t know about the Korean War. They know about World War II, about Vietnam, but nothing about Korea…Like Iraq and Afghanistan, it was very distant. There was no [impact] on the home front. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan we are totally disconnected and there’s nothing on the home front. It’s a nice surrogate.

1952 also happened to be a year that was very big in sports. It was the first time a baseball franchise moved. The Boston Braves decided to move to Milwaukee. It shocked people. No one ever thought of baseball as a business.

Now, in today’s newspapers, almost everything is about contract disputes, domestic violence, stadiums with bad behavior. Sports today is almost all about business. That started in 1952.

The last issue was immigration. It’s on everybody’s mind today. DACA, Trump with the wall. Immigration in the early 20th century through 1952 was about Irish, Italians, and Jews. Ironically, in Boston, the Irish were coming of age, the Italians were coming of age, the Jews were coming of age.

When I looked at all the years of the 1950s, Boston in 1952 was the epicenter of all these issues.

For the research, thank god for Google. I didn’t have to take trips. It can all be done online. I didn’t do one-on-one interviews. In my writing, I don’t interview people. I know a lot of people say you have to do that. I don’t.

For me, it interferes with my creative capabilities. It could subconsciously affect what I write. The whole thing has to be germinated from me without any biases.

Q: You are writing under a pseudonym. Why did you choose to do that?

A: It’s one I wrestled with. In my business activities, I don’t say this with any braggadocio, but I’m pretty well known. I felt if I used my name, somebody would say, oh, it’s a book about X because it’s his industry, or about Y because I know he’s involved in that transaction, or about Z because he raised money for that [entity]. I didn’t want anybody Googling me and saying [that].

Or [they could say] I know he calls it literary fiction but it’s probably some piece of crap he slapped together. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to avoid. People will look at the book not knowing the author, and can evaluate the book on its merits.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the impact of World War II on those that survived it?

A: The question is how did they survive it, and the book tries to show certain people weren’t involved in the war. Papa and his friends, none participated in the war because they were too old. They never even talked about the war. They went about their business as if there were no war.

On the other hand, you had people such as the boy’s uncle who actually wasn’t in the war but escaped from Germany in 1938. I tried to show that even though he wasn’t physically harmed…the effect of World War II on him was profound…

For me, the main point was the fact that there were people who survived, in Germany and Eastern Europe, who survived the Holocaust by getting out just before, or sneaking out of the camps, the impact on some was so profound that they couldn’t cope with life…

Q: Are you working on another novel?

A: I’m two-thirds through another book. I don’t want to say too much about it. This book is centered on the 1950s; the next is on the 1960s.

It’s very different. There’s a little bit of magic realism involved. It’s set in the United States. I’m in love with it but I haven’t finished it. I don’t know if I’ll love it when I’m finished…I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A couple of things. First the entire book pivots from the opening line: When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth. It’s really important to the book. It sets up everything in the book [and implies that] lies are coming.

Second, I had a couple of friends in a book group and they read the penultimate draft. They noticed the symmetry in the book. Things are set up in the beginning that [recur at the end]. It’s structured in a way that allows the reader to be satisfied in the end that everything is wrapped up…

Another thing that distinguishes the book is that I’ve used hundreds of foreign words. It’s the way people talk. The Irish people talk like Irish people, the Italians like Italians, the Jews like Jews. I spent an enormous amount of time making sure this was really how people speak. That’s very, very important to me, to portray how people actually speak.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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